City Hall error jeopardizes man's plan to build a home | March 17, 2023 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 17, 2023

City Hall error jeopardizes man's plan to build a home

Midtown zoning dispute puts City Council in a bind

by Gennady Sheyner

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."

Now, with the city and area neighbors rediscovering the site's zoning history, his 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 retain the site's current use: a lot that provides guest parking for the residents of 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."

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 project site, said he frequently drives on Ellsworth and that he has seen many near-accidents at the site.

"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 humans 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."

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 the council's feedback suggested that the most members would be open to compromise, which may 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 remove 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.

TALK ABOUT IT

What do you think the City Council should do? Share your thoughts on this dispute on Town Square, the community discussion forum at PaloAltoOnline.com/square.

Email Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner at [email protected]

Comments

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 15, 2023 at 9:38 am

Bystander is a registered user.

What the article fails to point out that this is a dead end street. Nobody drives down this street on the way to go somewhere else, it is purely used by the residents, their visitors, and perhaps delivery drivers. I would imagine that this street is too narrow for a delivery van to turn round and would have to back out.

Private streets are rare in Palo Alto and I am not sure if the same rules are updated on Private Streets as they are on City Streets. I know a previous resident and from memory the City appeared to ignore their needs as residents due to being on a Private Street.


Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 15, 2023 at 10:29 am

Anonymous is a registered user.

I feel the project should be allowed to go through.


Posted by Evergreen Park Observer
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Mar 15, 2023 at 10:48 am

Evergreen Park Observer is a registered user.

If the City made a mistake, it owns it. The neighbors are being ridiculous -- they would rather have a parking lot for their own use, i.e., more cars, than have a residence. I hope the City pays Handa a fair market price for the land so he can build elsewhere where he will be more welcome. His life will not be happy next door to such selfish neighbors.


Posted by panative
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 15, 2023 at 10:57 am

panative is a registered user.

I have lived in Midtown for 38 years. 1700 square feet is very much in line with home sizes here. If the city fails to own its mistake and caves into a small number of resident voices, that's just wrong. The project should go through.


Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 15, 2023 at 11:16 am

Anonymous is a registered user.

Google "Nitin Handa" and see that he is a big developer who is never going to live in that parking lot portable looking house. According to the City Council meeting, the street is 20' wide and the house is proposed to come directly up to it, making it dangerous to traffic and pedestrians on Middlefield Road where this street intersects it. The Ellsworth Place road entrance was supposed to be widened when those apartments were built and it wasn't done, probably because this was a low-income area of Palo Alto back at that time. Read all of the submitted packet and watch the entirety of the City Council meeting from Monday night before making a quick comment without all of the facts.


Posted by krobinson
a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 15, 2023 at 11:24 am

krobinson is a registered user.

There’s a 2 story house directly across the street, so allowing a 2 story house on this lot seems like a fair compromise. Asking for larger setbacks and a pathway for pedestrians (children) to approach Middlefield also seems both sensible and achievable. But telling this poor owner that, despite the city’s mistake and the title company’s mistake and the realtor’s mistake, they cannot build *anything* — that just seems mean. That’s not how any of us would want to be treated.

I’m sure losing those 9 extra “free” parking spaces the residents have all gotten used to will be inconvenient, but it’s not an excuse to trample this owner’s property rights.

I’m a Midtown Resident, and the Midtown Residents Association doesn’t speak for me when it opposes this project.


Posted by Alice Schaffer Smith
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 15, 2023 at 11:38 am

Alice Schaffer Smith is a registered user.

If Mr Handa has any need for special accommodations, such as physical impairments requiring a 1 story home, then the city should put in an elevator if that is required for him to build a 2 story house and live in it if that is the outcome. Also, I suspect building a 2 story house is far more expensive. These costs may necessarily become the City's.

I was aghast to learn that residents say their children almost get hit playing in the street. And whose fault is that?

If the street is so narrow that a truck can't enter except to back out, then surely these private owners of the street should put up large mirrors to ensure safety.

Another option is to ask the city to take over the street whatever that requires. In any event, Mr. Handa should be made whole and the City needs to have one of its staff check each of the planning decisions for the past 40 years to ensure that this is not a fluky error. We don't need to pay for more litigation arising from Palo Alto's failure to take due care.


Posted by MES
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 15, 2023 at 12:02 pm

MES is a registered user.

From this news report, it appears that the City made a mistake and “needs to own it” as another commenter has said. Is the City and others saying that the information that the City provides to buyers and sellers in real estate transactions cannot be trusted?

It is also hard ro follow the emotions stirred up in the neighborhood and I am wondering what is behind them. Maybe emotional feelings about losing a bit of open-space, or losing additional parking spaces, or something else.


Posted by AnnetteG
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 15, 2023 at 12:08 pm

AnnetteG is a registered user.

For me, the issue is about zoning.
How can a property owner sell off part of a PC? and how could a property owner not know that their property is a PC zone.


Posted by Sheri Furman
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 15, 2023 at 12:24 pm

Sheri Furman is a registered user.

Before you start feeling too sorry for the buyer, check his website.

Handa Development Group: https://www.handadevelopers.com

Copied from their home page, "Handa Developers Group is one of the premier Single Family home development company of Silicon valley. Our focus is to buy vacant land and tear down homes and build brand new luxury homes to cater to the ever-growing housing demand of Silicon valley. We strive to buy off market properties directly from the sellers, make significant value add through construction and sell them for top Dollars."


Posted by Green Gables
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 15, 2023 at 12:32 pm

Green Gables is a registered user.

I live in the flood zone and the City said that the people building a new house could have a basement until we neighbors went to Planning. Planning has a habit of making mistakes.


Posted by CEQA Required
a resident of Monroe Park
on Mar 15, 2023 at 3:14 pm

CEQA Required is a registered user.

Doesn’t Handa also own the apartment building that needs this parking? How did he not find out about the PC zone requirement when he bought that property? And why does this article not mention his ownership of it? The Daily Post’s article a few weeks ago included this fact.


Posted by What Will They Do Next
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 15, 2023 at 4:09 pm

What Will They Do Next is a registered user.

I hope that we don't have to listen to this type of divisive rhetoric from Julie Lythcott-Haims for the next four years. "She argued that land ownership in the United States was "a concept created by humans 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." Huh? She recently decried the value of home ownership appreciation saying something to the effect ( I can't locate the direct quote ) that she was pleased to see a drop in home values here in Palo Alto and that Palo Altans didn't deserve the increased value that appreciates over time. [Portion removed.]


Posted by KayaK
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 15, 2023 at 4:34 pm

KayaK is a registered user.

A foundational issue here is that lot 702 is part of a PC-zoned parcel. It is not actually a separate R-1 'empty' lot, which has sat 'undeveloped' for sixty years. The parking lot is attached to the apartment building directly across (the "two story" mentioned in another comment), it's not a 'random' parking area. The lot should -not- have been sold as a separate item - it isn't, it belongs to the apartments.

There are several issues at stake. In addition to the non-independent-lot PC/R-1 zoning confusions, the safety concerns in/out of the street and for the pedestrians & cyclists in the area are quite valid. Sight-lines are a significant consideration. Access in/out of the street is difficult due to it only being one lane wide (20ft, as mentioned in the article; standard is 32 ft.) The city council discussed widening this street in 1967, and it never happened (also previously mentioned). And there are other issues in play.

However the discrepancy happened, this lot should not have been sold off. A 2-storey house would have a smaller footprint and allow for increased visibility, and it is an option. Selling the lot back to the apartments is an option.


Posted by CEQA Required
a resident of Monroe Park
on Mar 15, 2023 at 7:02 pm

CEQA Required is a registered user.

@Kayak,

According to an article in the Daily Post on 3/3, the owner of the apartments is the same person trying to build this house. This seems like a conflict of interest, and they are trying to eliminate the parking their tenants need.


Posted by vmshadle
a resident of Meadow Park
on Mar 16, 2023 at 7:50 am

vmshadle is a registered user.

CEQA Required is absolutely right. I lived in one of the 2901 Middlefield apartments for 9 1/2 years when Ed Barry and family owned the complex. The parking spaces across from the building's carports on the south side were indeed overflow parking for the apartment building. As far as I understood from Ed, they were just that and not extra parking spaces for the homes on Ellsworth Place. And those spaces were indeed used by the tenants (and also postal trucks/delivery vehicles during the day when people were at work).

Ed and his dad always led with the understanding that, as landlords, they were dealing with people's homes first and foremost. They treated their tenants fairly and courteously, attending to their needs. If he indeed now owns 2901 Middlefield, it appears that Nitin Handa is putting the needs of his tenants last; and I feel very sorry for them.


Posted by scott
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Mar 16, 2023 at 3:05 pm

scott is a registered user.

If literally your whole argument for why the request should be denied is that the owner is a developer, then you're just making an ugly appeal to people's prejudices. Whatever the equitable resolution here, in a just system the outcome is blind to who is making the appeal.

And it's a hypocritical prejudice to appeal to. I imagine most people here think blood diamonds are bad. We would not buy a diamond we know to be a blood diamond. Yes?

If you're living in a house, it was built by a developer. If you really think they're so evil, then please consider the moral implications of your ongoing complicity in the market that perpetuates their nefarious existence.

"Housing for me but not for thee" is not a morally tenable position --if you think it's good for your house to exist, you should think it's good for someone else's to exist. Constructing housing reflects the same on the builder as growing food does on the farmer. These are essential functions in all societies throughout history, and it's perverse to demonize them.


Posted by SteveDabrowski
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 16, 2023 at 4:02 pm

SteveDabrowski is a registered user.

Re Julie Lythcott-Haims, we all knew what we were getting and still went with her. Have to love these social justice folks!


Posted by anon1234
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 17, 2023 at 7:26 am

anon1234 is a registered user.

It is relevant to know that the city of has a disclaimer on its zone maps stating “the city of Palo Alto claims no responsibility for any errors “
And that the parcel reports on the city’s website clearly shows his parcel as part of the PC apartment development across Ellsworth. So……


Posted by III
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 19, 2023 at 8:26 am

III is a registered user.

Nitin Handa IS A DEVELOPER, not a homeowner wishing to build and live there.
On the other hand it is a lot, the owners should have the right to build if
inline with neighborhood layout. Not some McMansion. Which is what usually are.
That said, anyone with new homes building up around them, has been a loud disaster.
Goes on 7 days per week hammering, trucks, dirt and damn crows cause of all the
trash. Lasts for 6 months. Then is usually sold to someone who buys it and you never see them as a neighbor, usually off shore money has been my experience in MidTown.
III


Posted by mjh
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 19, 2023 at 11:08 pm

mjh is a registered user.

When PC’s are granted to permit denser development than the zoning allows, legal terms and restrictions are attached to the PC agreement. If this parcel is within the legal boundary of the original PC then the question is, is it legal for the owner or future owner to change the use of any part of the property within the PC boundary to later on add additional buildings? Or carve out and sell off part of the PC property to use for a different purpose not included in the original terms and restrictions the city attached to the PC?

If the city voids the original terms of a PC to allow the owner to carve out part of the property within the PC boundary for additional building, then the question becomes what precedent will this set and what are the ramifications for every other PC the city has ever granted?


Posted by Environmentalist
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 26, 2023 at 11:32 am

Environmentalist is a registered user.

We need to stand up for our incredibly wise, well thought out, and environmentally friendly zoning regulations. If the project does not meet our requirements, it will be rejected


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