When Nitin Handa bought a parcel of land last November on a private street in the Midtown neighborhood, he had every intention of building a single-family home and few reasons to think that his plan would become the focus of neighborhood angst.
But on Monday, March 13, Handa found himself in an uncomfortable position: facing a flurry of opposition from his prospective neighbors and struggling to convince Palo Alto officials to allow his plan to move ahead. The reason? A city error that led him to believe at the time of the sale that his property on Ellsworth Place was zoned for residential use and the city's subsequent determination after the sale that, in fact, the property is not.
The zoning mess goes back to 1967, when the city approved a "planned community" (PC) zone to enable a 12-apartment complex next door at 2901 Middlefield Road, a designation that allows developments that would otherwise fail to meet underlying zoning. The property consisted of four contiguous parcels on Middlefield Road and Ellsworth Place. The parcel that Handa bought was, back then, designated for residential use and then integrated into the "planned community" project so it could be used as a parking lot for the new residential complex.
The city failed, however, to update its zoning maps to reflect the new PC zone, creating the impression that the parcel at 702 Ellsworth Place was still zoned as R-1, which allows single-family homes. So when Handa bought the property in 2022, he was told by both the seller and the city that a single-family home would be allowed on the property. A title company also failed to turn up any documentation suggesting that his plan could not be put into action.
"We had multiple conversations with the city also where the city told us what we can build," Handa said during Monday's hearing. "We are proposing to build exactly what the city told us."
Neighbors ask city to block the new home
Now, with the city and area neighbors rediscovering the site's zoning history, Handa's plan is very much in jeopardy. Opponents of the proposal have characterized his plan as a "shady real estate transaction" and have accused Handa of failing to do his due diligence when he made the purchase. Handa, for his part, is hoping that the city will modify the PC zone so that it can once again accommodate residential use.
Other Ellsworth Place residents argued Monday that the proposed home would endanger them and their children and suggested that the proposed location of the home is too close to the street, which is narrow and has no sidewalks. Kristen A. Van Fleet, who represented a group of Ellsworth residents at the Monday meeting, said she and her neighbors often see children almost get hit by cars at this location.
"We think this is a problem, and we want you to please hear us before anyone gets hurt, or worse, killed, in this situation," Van Fleet said.
The Midtown Residents Association sided with the neighbors and submitted a letter calling for Handa's project to be denied. The letter urged the council to keep the site as a parking lot for guests of the residents in adjacent homes. Sheri Furman, the association's chair, argued that Handa's request for a zone change should have been made before the property was sold, saving him the uncertainty he currently faces.
"The proposed replacement parking that I've seen is problematic at best and even dangerous, as well as neither adequate nor compliant," Furman told the council.
Ellsworth residents also argued in a letter that the proposed 1,695-square-foot home is "out of scale" with the rest of the street, where the average home size on the even-numbered side of the street is 1,114 square feet.
"If there is an ordinance governing a parcel of land, as approved by the City Council, that ordinance stands," the letter states. "Rezoning to make things less compliant sets the wrong precedent."
The City Council's dilemma
Council members struggled on Monday to reconcile the competing positions. Some, including Mayor Lydia Kou and Vice Mayor Greer Stone, leaned toward the residents' position, with Kou suggesting that the Handa fell short when doing due diligence before buying the property. (Handa pushed back against that argument, noting that he was relying on the information that the city had provided.)
Stone, a Midtown resident who lives near the property, said he frequently drives on Ellsworth and he has seen many near-accidents at the location.
"So if we're balancing here the property rights of one potential homeowner compared to not only the safety of Ellsworth Place residents but all who drive there, that's not a difficult weighing of interests there," Stone said. "Safety, of course, will have to win out at the end of the day."
Others, however, were more sympathetic to Handa. Council member Julie Lythcott-Haims dismissed arguments from project opponents about the intent of lawmakers who created the PC zone more than 40 years ago. She argued that land ownership in the United States was "a concept created by human who stole land from other humans and then those humans sold that land to others, who sold it to others and at some point those others created arbitrary rules about what could and what could not be done."
In ruling on Handa's proposal, the city should consider an outcome that would be "equitable and fair in 2023," she said.
If the city didn't know about the PC zone, she asked, how can Handa be expected to have known about it?
"He did his due diligence," she said. "He did what I did when I bought my home in Palo Alto."
The council's hearing was a "pre-screening" and, as such, entailed no formal action. But its feedback suggested that the most members would be open to compromise, which might entail asking Handa to revise the application and create more space near the road, possibly by adding a second story to the proposed home. Council member Pat Burt suggested that allowing a second story would alleviate some of the constraints at the site and address residents' concerns.
"Then the footprint of the home is smaller and a whole bunch of this other stuff … I think a lot of these things could be resolved," Burt said.