For some Palo Alto residents, a two-story Eichler home is a dream worth pursuing.
For others, it's an architectural abomination that should be banned.
On Monday night, the City Council found itself hearing from both camps as it considered -- and ultimately approved -- a new set of guidelines for Eichler neighborhoods. The 126-page document instructs readers on the finer points of expanding, renovating and enlarging the famously glassy, boxy, post-and-beam homes that were popularized by builder Joseph Eichler in the years after World War II.
The council voted 7-1, with Tom DuBois absent and Karen Holman dissenting, to adopt the guidelines. But while these guidelines will be voluntary, Eichler communities will have the option of adding some teeth to the new rulebook.
Neighborhoods that want increased protection will be able to designate themselves as "Eichler Zone Combining Districts" with a supermajority vote of residents. These districts would allow Eichler owners to build two-story homes, while ensuring that these homes are consistent with the new guidelines.
The council's adoption of the Eichler Neighborhood Design Guidelines was prompted by a series of squabbles in different Eichler neighborhoods, where some residents petitioned the city to prohibit new two-story homes and others blasted the proposed ban as an attack on their property rights.
Each side claimed some victories in 2016, when the City Council approved two single-story overlay districts (which explicitly ban two-story homes) in the Eichler enclaves of Los Arboles and Greer Park North but rejected the overlay districts in Royal Manor and Faircourt. In the two latter cases, the council reached its decision after emotionally charged public hearings, with some residents accusing their neighbors of misleading them with petitions and describing the new zones as an unnecessary overreach.
These philosophical differences have not gone away, though the Monday discussion suggested that the terms of the debate have shifted. Of the roughly 20 people who addressed the council on the subject, almost everyone found favored sections within the guidelines, which include rules on everything from roof alignment and landscaping to placement of windows and garages.
There was far less consensus on the biggest question facing the council Monday: Should these guidelines be voluntary?
For Roy Snyder, a resident of Royal Manor, the answer is clearly no. He wrote in a letter to the council that only seven of the 26 homes on his block actually appear to conform to the new guidelines. The rest, he said, have multiple non-conforming features.
"Adoption of these guidelines as a formal City of Palo Alto document -- when it is known that as many as three-quarters of the existing structures may not conform -- is simply poor public policy and governance. It will erode the credibility of past and certainly future City guides, codes, ordinances, etc.," Snyder wrote to the council.
Siamack Sammie, who also lives in Royal Manor and who is considering building a second story, also urged the council to keep the guidelines voluntary. Homeowners who are expanding their homes already have every incentive to be respectful of neighbors to maintain peace in the community, he said. Adding a slew of new rules to the city's design-review process (known as "Individual Review" when new two-story homes are involved) will only muddle the situation and make it hard for residents to understand exactly what they are allowed to build.
"If it goes through and becomes part of the IR (Individual Review), part of the overlay for the neighborhood, it will set the stage for more confrontation and conflict among neighbors," Sammie told the council Monday.
Others strongly disagreed. Ben Lerner, who helped lead a multi-neighborhood effort to establish "single-story overlay" districts in 2016, said he'd like to see the new guidelines integrated into the city's Individual Review process. Though the process considers such factors as mass and height, it doesn't regulate style -- a key consideration in Eichler neighborhoods, which were designed as communities.
The review process, Lerner said, is flawed when it comes to Eichlers and should be fixed so that it protects the rights of all homeowners in these neighborhoods, not just the person rebuilding or expanding a home.
Marilyn Bauriedel, who lives on South Court, argued that the new guidelines can be a great tool for achieving "thoughtful and spacious remodels" and "upgrades and replacement homes suitable for today's young families without destroying the character of the neighborhoods or causing residents' privacy to be destroyed."
"I believe they should be adopted and put into service and more than just suggestions to homeowners," Bauriedel wrote in an email to the council. "They belong as an integral part of design review standards and I hope you will adopt for not only two-story homes going into Eichler neighborhoods but for one-story remodels and new homes as well."
The council stopped short of integrating them into the review process. Instead, by directing staff to create the new Eichler district, it opted to let each neighborhood decide whether the new guidelines should have teeth or not. In the coming months, planning staff will conduct more outreach and return with an ordinance for the council to adopt.
The approach was proposed by Councilman Greg Scharff, who pointed out that each of the city's 31 Eichler tracts seems to have different characteristics. For that reason, he said he cannot support a "one-size-fits-all" approach.
After a lengthy discussion and comments from about 20 residents, the council voted to approve the voluntary guidelines and to give neighborhoods the option of going beyond voluntary. Holman, the sole dissenter, didn't have any broad objections to the guidelines but took issues with the resolution drafted by staff to adopt the guidelines.
She attempted to convince her colleagues to delete from the resolution a statement that Eichlers are "not considered historical resources" under existing law, unless they contribute to the significance of a district that is designated as historical on a state or federal registry (the finding, she said, is not supported by evidence). She also proposed giving Eichler neighborhoods the option of applying the guidelines to not just two-story homes but to single-story ones as well. After neither proposal won support from the majority, she dissented from the final vote.
"It's one of the purposes of this whole process to protect the Eichler character, the privacy issues and compatibility issues," Holman said. "That isn't necessarily accomplished with a two-story Eichler overlay."