News

Editorial: The Eichler challenge

New draft design guidelines need teeth or won't be effective

Among the many consequences of Palo Alto's extraordinary high housing prices and the region's housing shortage is a growing divide between new owners of Eichler homes and those who have lived in them for decades.

Eichlers, which were largely built during Palo Alto's housing boom in the 1950s, feature open floor plans, floor-to-ceiling windows and the integration of indoor and outdoor spaces. They were largely built as single-story homes and therefore created privacy between next-door neighbors.

Over the last decade, the value of these Palo Alto homes, like the rest of Palo Alto real estate, has soared, but Eichlers have been among the most affordable in the city. As a result, they have attracted buyers who see these homes for their expansion potential, generally by adding a second floor with additional bedrooms.

While that same pattern has occurred throughout the city over the last four decades, the Eichler design makes second-story additions much more intrusive because upstairs windows enable views directly into neighbors' windows and backyards, undermining the most appealing architectural features of Eichlers and, over time, changing the character of the neighborhood.

Over the last few years, several south Palo Alto neighborhoods have erupted in controversy as some home owners sought City Council approval of an "overlay" zone prohibiting second stories through a procedure of obtaining the support on petitions of at least 60 percent of the residents. In several instances, after achieving this required threshold, support had eroded by the time the petition was heard by the council, and in two instances in 2016, the petition ended up being denied. Prior to these rejections, several restrictive overlay zones had been approved and are still in place.

Disturbed by the neighborhood vitriol that was surfacing with these proposals, in 2016 the City Council wisely decided to step back and engage a consultant planning firm to develop draft design guidelines for the expansion of Eichler homes. The hope was that such guidelines could be the best way to balance the desire of those wanting to expand their homes with a second story (or a complete re-build) with the privacy interests of immediate neighbors and would help preserve the design integrity of Eichlers.

On Monday night, the council will discuss the draft Eichler Neighborhood Design Guidelines, a 126-page document that "is intended to assist property owners, city staff, the design community ... to sustain the architectural character of Eichler neighborhoods and ensure that changes to the built environment will be sensitive to the community's design legacy."

The guidelines are described as "voluntary," but the staff is asking for direction from the council on whether to prepare zoning-ordinance amendments or modify single-family-home design standards that would enable enforcement of the design guidelines during the city's review process.

Currently, any property owner in the city proposing a new two-story home or the addition of a second story to an existing home, including in Eichler neighborhoods, must go through a process called "individual review" that utilizes a similar but more generic, design handbook and addresses privacy, building mass and streetscape issues but not architectural style.

That process was adopted when a wave of tear-downs and second story additions was sweeping across north Palo Alto in the 1990s and residents demanded a process for public review and for requiring conformance with design guidelines. Until this was implemented, there were no restrictions on what a home owner could build as long as it was within the lot-coverage, set-back and floor-area-ratio requirements in the zoning law. The individual-review process, conceived by a small citizens committee appointed by the council, has been hugely successful at getting developers to work with neighbors and has drastically reduced conflict and prevented inappropriate intrusions on neighbors.

The new draft Eichler guidelines are intended to go further by addressing neighborhood compatibility specifically for Eichler neighborhoods. The guidelines provide a useful and comprehensive overview of how homeowners should design their Eichler additions to preserve their home's design integrity while protecting neighbors.

After completing this ambitious effort to create these design guidelines, we see no benefit to making them voluntary. If established as only optional, neighbor conflicts will continue and bad design will gradually undermine neighborhood character.

As recommended by the staff and a unanimous Historic Resources Board, we urge the City Council to adopt the draft guidelines and direct the staff to develop the needed changes to the zoning ordinance and single-family-home design standards so that the guidelines can be utilized in the individual-review process and when evaluating requests for variances and home-improvement exceptions.

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Comments

15 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 30, 2018 at 10:07 am

What I -like- about this process is that it is including the property rights of -neighbors- of new projects, as well as the property rights of -owners- who want to make changes. Neighbors have legitimate rights of privacy, daylight plane access, and architectural compatibility. New owners are often looking for upgrades to a house that wasn't designed and built with 2018 in mind, and, is not particularly amenable to simple incremental upgrades. I think both viewpoints have validity and I would like to see a process that minimizes the likelihood of litigation and maximizes the likelihood of neighborliness at the conclusion.


4 people like this
Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 30, 2018 at 3:42 pm

Allen Akin is a registered user.

I've seen a few Palo Alto project reviews, first-hand and second-hand, and I have much less faith than the editors that making the guidelines mandatory would be a change for the better.

A good exercise is to walk the neighborhoods and see which original houses meet ALL the requirements of the guidelines. Could the existing neighborhood be built if the guidelines had been in place originally? Will any new project be rejected by Planning if it fails to meet one of the requirements? Will any new project disliked (for any reason) by a neighbor be challenged if it fails to meet one of the requirements? Who decides such questions, and on what grounds? Can such decisions be appealed?

The cost of attempting to block a project by claiming it's inconsistent with the guidelines is zero. The cost of addressing such objections can be very high, either because the applicant has to pay for a redesign or because the applicant has to give up an important goal, like housing a family member. You can see how these economic incentives are likely to have difficult consequences. But at any given time there are fewer people planning to build than not, so when new rules are proposed it's easy for the majority to shift the burden onto the minority.

I think there are fairness issues here, too. On another thread I saw someone observe that people might have bought into an Eichler neighborhood with the intent of building later. Imposing new mandatory rules after-the-fact takes property rights away from them without compensation. One way to solve this problem might be to make the guidelines voluntary on each property until the next transfer of title, and mandatory thereafter. I don't know if that option has been discussed.

A lot more could be said, but I'm out of time. One last observation. There will never be universal agreement about "bad design", so I think it's wise to maintain some flexibility rather than encouraging purists to force dogma on everyone else. Here's a great example concerning one of Palo Alto's signature house styles: Web Link


12 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Mar 30, 2018 at 3:48 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

The people who purchased the existing Eichlers did so knowing full well that they were not protected from improvements on adjacent parcels.

Why should they now be granted very valuable protections for nothing?

Why not permit them to purchase the development rights from adjacent parcels if they do not want those parcels improved?


9 people like this
Posted by Mid Palo Alto neighbor
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 2, 2018 at 6:26 am

I find it hard to belive that adopting guidelines as mandatory will help. The good part of guidelines is that there is clear expectations of the feedback you will get from the individual review. It seems like they don't need to be mandir to get that.

The bigger problem is that there is a housing crisis in the bay area, which isn't going away. The community seems to be more interested in preserving decisions made for reducing cost and increasing building speed in the 1950s into the 2050s. I realize change is hard, but I think the council should have an eye for those needs in its decisions.


6 people like this
Posted by Carol
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 2, 2018 at 3:42 pm

There will never be universal agreement about "bad design", so I think it's wise to maintain some flexibility rather than encouraging purists to force dogma on everyone else. Progress in inevitable, taste regarding esthetics is personal and individual and INCLUSIVE and many people from around the globe grace our lovely city and their non-eicher-esqe taste deserves RESPECT. Basic guidelines that serve as EDUCATIONAL TOOLS so that owners can EASILY LEARN (and architects can explain) some of the courtesies that neighbors may appreciate they take into consideration when renovating, building a second story or doing a tear-down.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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