Fall Real Estate 2005

Publication Date: Wednesday, October 12, 2005

New homes cropping up
Teardowns abound in Palo Alto, Menlo Park

by Mary T. Fortney

With median home prices setting records, more homeowners are tempted to simply improve what they've got. That often translates into stripping it down -- all the way down -- and starting all over again.

The main advantage is they already own the land -- that rare commodity in Palo Alto and Menlo Park.

A new home, designed by Clark Atkins, is under construction on Leland Avenue, replacing a house about half the size of the new one.

Since 2000, 459 houses have been torn down and replaced. Palo Alto issues from 100 to 130 permits yearly for teardowns or major remodeling, the city's planning director Steve Emslie reported. Menlo Park Planning Director Linda Heinrick estimates there are fewer than 30 new houses built each year in that city, but there are more additions and remodeling projects.

With speculators playing at most a small role now, current teardowns, and the resultant new homes are generally different from the huge homes in 2000 that generated so much backlash over fear of monster homes.

With relatively few vacant lots, there's an incentive for homeowners to stay where they are, and remodel or rebuild, Emslie explained. And, he said, "they can build for $300 to $400 a square foot, while houses sell for about $600 a square foot.''


Add that savings, and a teardown seems like a bargain.

The cost of demolition is manageable. Douglas Galbraith, a longtime estimator for Abco Construction of San Martin, said a small bungalow would cost about $12,000 to demolish, and a medium-size house, about $15,000. It gets expensive if the homeowner wants a basement, which some of the larger homes have, he added. That can range from $50,000 to as high as $170,000. "You have to put in real thick concrete and lots of rebars," he said

"We used to move houses to other areas with empty lots,'' he said, "but in the Bay Area for the last five years we've been doing demolitions.''

This artist's rendering of the new house on Leland, designed by architect Clark Atkins, is a 'modern interpretation of a ranch house,' with peaked roof, multiple windows and a moon gate.

An example of a typical teardown is in progress now at 283 Leland Ave., Menlo Park, in an unincorporated area of San Mateo County. The 1,300-square-foot home, built in the late 1940s, already demolished, was owned by Ewart Thomas, a Peninsula resident, and a new home is under construction.

The architect, Clark Atkins, a former Palo Altan who lives in Carmel, said an addition was added in the late 1950s or 1960s, and at some point the garage was converted to a dining room. "It wasn't worth saving the house,'' he said.

The lot is 5,600 square feet. Under county zoning, Atkins was limited to 2,900 square feet for the house, and that had to include a two-car garage.

Empty lots in Menlo Park are a rarity. This lot, on the corner of Stanford Avenue and Palo Alto Way, has been a gathering spot for neighbors for several years -- until it finally went on the market. The asking price? $950,000.

"I didn't want a boxy house and I wanted to maximize the yard,'' he said. "I wanted to preserve the front yard to match other houses on the street."

Atkins' solution was to design a fair-sized first floor and a small second floor. Calling it a "modern interpretation of a ranch house," he said the house has a peaked roof, multiple windows, a garden wall and a moon gate.

Empty lots are scarce in Palo Alto and Menlo Park, driving up prices for land, as well as houses. A good-sized lot at the corner of Stanford Avenue and Palo Alto Way in Menlo Park is listed by Coldwell Banker for $950,000. Any home built there would inevitably be pushed into the multi-million-dollar category.

The house on that lot was a teardown, but not a typical one. When its elderly owner, Ken Sherman, died, his family decided to clear the lot because the house was in poor condition. But with a generous spirit, the family permitted neighborhood residents to use the lot for several years before finally putting it on the market late this summer.

The lot became a real community center: Kids played there, dog owners tossed balls to their pets, and adults relaxed in rickety chairs, chatting with neighbors.

Now that it's on the market, all that has stopped. Ron Snow, of the University Park neighborhood association, wishes San Mateo County or an open space organization would purchase the lot for a park but that's a remote possibility. University Park residents hope the lot buyer will build a smaller, cottage-type house in keeping with the neighborhood, but that's also not a sure thing.

Other options for living in a new house in this area are few: The last major development in Menlo Park was Vintage Oaks on the Saint Patrick's Seminary site, in the late 1990s. Soon Clarum Homes' Hamilton Park will include 47 new homes.

In Palo Alto, developments on Alma Plaza Shopping Center, Elks Lodge and Hyatt Rickeys are in planning stages, but no construction is underway. SummerHill is finishing up its latest development of condominiums and single-family homes in the University South neighborhood.

So teardowns, for the people who already own a home, can work out well. Others, who want to buy a home on the market, had better have ample funds. Median home prices in Palo Alto through June 2005 hit $1,350,000, and Menlo Park $1,270,000.

Palo Alto offers guidelines for individual reviews

While Palo Altans were up in arms in 2000 about teardowns because they hated the big blocky houses suddenly intruding on their neighborhoods, all seems calmer these days. Credit the city of Palo Alto, which took action to quell the storm.

By the end of November 2001 Palo Alto had developed a system for individual reviews for single-family new homes. Guidelines were formulated for making new houses compatible with other houses on the street, thus preserving the character of the city's neighborhoods. The guidelines were updated in 2004 on the recommendation of the Planning and Transportation Commission and approved by city planner Steve Emslie on June 10 of this year.

The commission stressed the objectives were the same as in 2001 but the revised rules were intended to more clearly emphasize and better describe them. The individual review is not a design review, and there's no intention to prescribe specific architectural styles.

"The individual reviews have brought about discussion between neighbors, and for the most part, issues are settled amicably," Emslie said. "Only about 1 to 2 percent are contentious."

A 15-page pamphlet published by the city of Palo Alto spells out five guidelines, with charts to illustrate how to apply the rules. The guidelines are:

1. The driveway, garage and house should reinforce the existing site patterns in building footprints, setbacks and yard areas, and the garage and driveway should be subordinate to the house and entry as seen from the street. The site plan and footprint of the house should be a "custom fit" with the neighborhood.

2. The goal is to avoid overwhelming adjacent one-story houses with large masses, monumental forms and sharp contrasts in height. One way is to place more floor area on the first level than the second level whenever possible.

3. The architectural form should be crafted to reduce visual mass and to emphasize the house's architectural lines. Roof profiles should enhance the form of the house; a blocky second story would not meet the guidelines.

4. Street-facing facades and entries should be compatible with the neighborhoods, and have a unified visual character, not a collection of fragmented forms and elements.

5. Second-story windows and decks should be placed to limit direct sightlines into windows and patios at the rear and sides of adjacent properties.