Resident seeks to get home off of historic inventory | January 6, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 6, 2012

Resident seeks to get home off of historic inventory

City Council to deliberate status of Palo Alto home Monday

by Sue Dremann

If a Palo Alto homeowner succeeds having his 1895 home taken off of the city's Historic Building Inventory, it would only be the second such instance in a dozen years, according to the city.

Christopher Pickett will ask the City Council Monday to approve the removal of his Queen Anne-style home at 935 Ramona St. from the list. His home is among 500 structures the city has designated as historic since 1980.

City staff supported his request in September, citing many alterations to the house since its construction. But the city's Historic Resources Board rejected that recommendation 6 to 0 on Sept. 21.

The difference in perspectives on the historical merits of the home demonstrates how carefully the city guards its historic inventory. The 116-year-old building looks like a Queen Anne-style home and has the curb appeal to fit in with the character of the neighborhood. But the house underwent $500,000 in alterations between 1976 and 2005, according to a consultant's report.

The Ramona Street home is a Category 4, the least restrictive designation on the inventory list, and changes were allowed without first undergoing a Historic Resources Board review, historic-preservation planner Dennis Backlund told the board. The home is also not located in the downtown zone or in a historic district, a September staff report noted.

The homeowner's consultant, Garavaglia Architecture, evaluated the property and concluded the alterations caused it to lose its "physical historic integrity" since its historic-inventory listing in 1980. Backlund told the Historic Resources Board that staff used standards practiced by the National Park Service and California Office of Historic Preservation and came to the same conclusion.

But board members said the building, although altered, fully meets the requirements for Category 3 or 4 designations and should remain on the list.

Palo Alto Stanford Heritage (PAST) member Richard Brand, who has lived in a historically designated home on Addison Avenue for 20 years, argued before the Historic Resources Board that he has seen much of the city's historic inventory disappear. Removing historical designation from 935 Ramona could allow the homeowner to demolish the house.

"The neighborhood needs to maintain its integrity," he said.

Homes, structures, sites and districts receive their historical designation after an individual or group proposes the designation to the city, according to the historic-building ordinance. The Historic Resources Board reviews the proposal and makes a recommendation to the council, which approves or rejects the application.

Homeowners and commercial-building owners can receive incentives and property advantages when they choose to have a historical designation. Incentives include reduction of or exemption from on-site parking requirements; bonus square-footage allowances; exemptions from full upgrading to current standards; modified seismic upgrades; and exemptions from disability-access mandates, state energy standards and state flood-hazard area regulations.

But only Category 1 and 2 buildings receive the incentives. There are no incentives for Category 3 and 4 structures, said Steven Turner, city advance planning manager.

Palo Alto has four categories for historic preservation: Category 1 (exceptional building) is a structure with no exterior modifications or minor changes that maintain the overall appearance and original character; Category 2 (major building) might have some exterior modifications but the original character remains; Categories 3 or 4 (contributing building) is a building that maintains an appropriate design for its neighborhood and maintains its historical integrity, such as not having been moved from another location.

"When you go by this building, it has a very strong feeling of significance and history," board chair David Bower said of the Ramona property. Any structure of similar age would require new siding and other changes as part of its upkeep. But the Queen Anne façade still remains to the degree that "it is still a physical record of its time," he said.

In the 12 years Backlund has worked for the city, only one home, a Category 3 Mission Revival style house located at 445 Colorado Ave., has been removed from the list, he said. That occurred in 2005.

Palo Alto Realtor Ken DeLeon said removing a historic designation is difficult.

"It's a huge procedural battle and even then there are no guarantees," he said.

One Professorville client ran afoul of his neighborhood's historic status when he wanted to demolish a building on his property. The building itself was not deemed a historic structure. He spent $500,000 on legal fees and finally won the council's approval in 2010 to demolish it.

Many people buy historically designated homes without understanding the full implications. Often they fail to consider their future home needs, DeLeon said. When they realize they want or need to do more with their home, they bump up against restrictions.

"There are only so many changes you can make. The cost is usually a little higher (to remodel), and you don't get what you want," he said.

Homes with a historical designation are a niche market, often attracting people from the East Coast and Boston area who want older houses, he said. But the cultural preference for the old-town charm of a small home on a big lot is changing, he added.

Palo Alto is a magnet for many wealthy immigrants who are changing the cultural norm. Many desire to build larger homes, and that could affect home values of historic properties in the future, he said.

DeLeon conservatively estimated that homes with historical designations are valued 15 to 20 percent lower than other properties. The disparity is likely to rise as more people seek out larger lots for bigger homes, he said.

Pickett said he regretted not having attended the Historic Resources Board meeting, when he and his wife were on separate trips as chaperones for more than 70 schoolchildren each.

"I think it was a matter of first impressions," he said, noting that it might have seemed insulting to board members that the couple didn't attend. He plans to attend the council meeting, he added.

"Pretty much everything stopped because of the (Historic Resources Board) decision," he said, noting he and his wife have looked at a variety of things they could do to the house.

The Historic Resources Board members based their decision in essence on a walk-by, he said, not having any requirement to view the inside of the house. The previous owners gutted the inside and remodeled it in an ultra-modern style.

When the couple purchased the home 4 1/2 years ago, they had no idea of what they were facing, he said. They had only remodeled a bathroom. Since the Historic Resources Board decision Pickett hired a second consultant from the planning department's list to do a peer review of the Garavaglia report. The consultants, Page and Turnbull, came to the same conclusion that the home did not meet the test on seven city criteria for historic integrity, he said.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at


Like this comment
Posted by gt
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 6, 2012 at 4:10 pm

they want privacy, so why is the media not respect that still take photo of their home and make a news about it????

Like this comment
Posted by Kate
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 6, 2012 at 8:00 pm

Where were the Historic Resources Board, the Planning Commission, and all the rest of boards and commissions in the "Palo Alto Process" when the 'new Walgreen's was approved and built?? The old building, tragically destroyed by fire, was tasteful, lovely, and very historic - and now with the new Walgreen's we have this 'prison architecture' monstrosity. The same has happened to the University Avenue 'circle' - on the approach to downtown Palo Alto from El Camino. Downtown Palo Alto is losing a lot of charm - and in my opinion is a now mish-mash 'tacky'.

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Posted by Blame Game
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 6, 2012 at 10:04 pm

Kate, Don't blame the Planning Commission. The review process doesn't bring the downtown commercial projects to the Planning Commission unless it's a PC Zone or there's a Variance to zoning rules. ARB has reviewed the projects on University and University Cirlce, not the Planning Commission.

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Posted by concerned citizen
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 7, 2012 at 8:44 am

@gt, it is a public matter not a private matter, because it is on the historic inventory, so the owners are not entitled to privacy and should have no expectation of it. They have the right to seek this change, but it is subject to a public airing of the merits of their petition. They knew what it was on the historic inventory when they bought it.

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Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 9, 2012 at 10:17 am

"now with the new Walgreen's we have this 'prison architecture' monstrosity. The same has happened to the University Avenue 'circle' "

Palo Alto's architectural review board has never seen an abomination it didn't adore. If you want pretty buildings, go to Menlo Park.

Like this comment
Posted by frank
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jan 9, 2012 at 10:35 am

How ridiculous to "want" your beautiful historic home removed from the historical inventory. Palo Alto is so beautiful because of the historic homes. Let us never lose our history to ugly track homes....and also, there are so many new "Ikea" style fugly homes now.....its horrific to see these homes being built....they look like office bldgs.....there is one now at end of Embarcadero near underpass, so ugly. I thought it was an office building but its a house! Yuk.

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Posted by CC
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jan 9, 2012 at 11:09 am

I don't know if anybody thought of this yet.. but ugly homes can be turned into things of beauty. All you need is the desire to do so.

Like this comment
Posted by likeit
a resident of another community
on Jan 9, 2012 at 11:10 am

I would very much like to live in the tiny palo alto ugly house than moving to a town such as red wood city.

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Posted by voter
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 9, 2012 at 12:48 pm

I have lived in a Palo Alto historically designated house for more than 30 years. During a remodel we found the city's approval process to be quite burdensome. I find it so hypocritical that there is this 'Williamsburg' attitude about the homes and yet the street parking is so out of control, so destructive, intrusive, littered and downright unsafe (can you even see around the cars parked beyond the stop signs to safely cross any streets??). The neighborhoods are so severely impacted by parking that the idea of historic or beautiful is laughable.

Like this comment
Posted by rem
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 9, 2012 at 1:02 pm

rem is a registered user.


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Posted by Charlotte
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 9, 2012 at 1:16 pm

Frank --
Your comment has provoked me to add in my thoughts. You call it "ridiculous" to want a historic house removed from the inventory. Are you serious? And "Palo Alto is beautiful because of the historic homes?" Really? Houses can be built in older styles, amounting to nearly the same thing as having a historic building. I don't see a mandate for "old-looking" buildings, the closest thing is how the house can't be atrocious. Would you like every house in Palo Alto to look old? Do solar panels bother you because they are not historic? Additionally, you seem to favor making it so that houses can NEVER be removed from the list. Brilliant! What happens when a run down shack gets deemed a "Historical building," and the owner can't update it? What if they want (visible) solar panels, perhaps helping the environment, and they can't?

And Concerned Citizen -- "it is a public matter not a private matter, because it is on the historic inventory." Exactly. But the historic inventory in Palo Alto accumulates homes that have gone without change for 50 years (I believe -- feel free to correct me. If it's not this commission, there certainly is one that tries to deem houses 50+ years older historical. Perhaps it's a mandate, I don't know). I think this is a complete waste, and the fact that people can spend $500,000 on legal fees is disgusting. Bureaucracy at it's finest. Do we REALLY need a historical commission (not to say that it needs to be abolished, just that they shouldn't be this powerful)? Sure, keeping historical homes is nice, but perhaps they shouldn't be this over-involved. Getting a house off the register only has happened ONCE recently? That's just failure. I honestly can't believe people still favor this commission to make their lives prettier (pretty houses = happy people, or so some claim) instead of considering how the OWNER of the house feels. Why can't they remodel it if they'd like too? Of course, because it makes someone else's life harder if they view the house.... really? Seriously?

Also, both of you, consider how unpopular historical homes can be. I believe that my house has been intentionally remodeled every now and then to keep it OFF the historical list because we certainly don't want to deal with this. I pity the people who receive houses that they can't remodel because the last owner forgot to inconvenience them self to stay off the historical record. They say 15-20% lower valued in the article, but perhaps it's not that. Even if it's a lower percentage than given -- 10%, for example -- that's still absolutely HUGE. Why impact the market by having this commission involved in everything?
And I agree with voter-- houses aren't the only thing that can be ""ugly."" How about gardens, cars, pets, lawn signs -- are they "ugly" and should be interfered with? If there's a car from 1895 like the house, then should we mandate that car be kept in use....?

Like this comment
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Jan 9, 2012 at 3:25 pm

I lived at 935 Ramona in the mid sixties. It was divided into four apartments. The one I first occupied, while I worked at old St. Michael's Alley, cost $20 a month. Several of the earliest Grateful Dead songs were written there. The same orange tree grows in the front yard, but the condition has changed from quite rundown to reasonably upscale. This piece of my own history invites an occasional stroll past when I visit town. I truly miss all the great Victorian houses that characterized downtown, especially along Hamilton Ave. Portions of the town which were once venerable now look like more-or-less anywhere. Only us old-timers know or care. Once gone, gone forever.

Like this comment
Posted by bigger fish to fry
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 9, 2012 at 3:28 pm

first world problems

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Posted by homestyles
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 11, 2012 at 4:06 pm

I Agree with Robert.

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Posted by Rose
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 11, 2012 at 4:35 pm

The solution is simple: If you don't want to live in a historic home, don't buy one. They sell for less, but if you purchase a newer home, you won't have to pay for remodeling. Let people have their history and their heritage. Those things are more important than many realize. And if you don't care about those things, too bad, get over it; there are people who do.

I'm wondering where the Architectural Review Board was when the plans for the Koret Campus on Charleston and the new Elks Lodge on El Camino were approved. One takes up every available square inch of land to generate the most income, and the other couldn't possibly be any uglier. Urban blight without the passing of time usually required for that.

The article asks the opinion of a real estate agent. That's a waste of time. Real estate agents want newer, larger homes that will generate the most resale value and their opinions would be hopelessly biased.