Los Arboles residents take pride in their neighborhood's diversity, with children, seniors, long-time denizens and new arrivals happily mingling earlier this year at a block party that featured a bounce house for the children, a car show for adults and a pot luck for all.
But when it comes to home heights, variety is not something that the Eichler-style neighborhood prizes. Earlier this year, 80 percent of the property owners in this Midtown tract signed a petition to ban new two-story homes through the creation of a "single-story overlay" zone. On Monday night, they got their wish when the City Council swiftly and unanimously approved the zone change.
With the council's vote, Los Arboles became the first in what promises to be a wave of Palo Alto neighborhoods seeking single-story overlays a tool that was common in the early 1990s but has remained dormant for the past decade. Several other Eichler tracts in the Midtown area including Greer Park North and Royal Manor have also recently applied for the zone change and are set to go to the council in the coming months.
Rebecca Thompson, a Los Arboles resident who led the effort, called the neighborhood quest for the restriction a "long and worthwhile journey" involving hundreds of hours of volunteer time.
Ultimately, support for the zone change in the 83-home community easily cleared the 70 percent threshold that the city's zoning code lays out for such overlays. The council's decision in June to abolish the fee of about $8,000 that officially accompanied these requests (albeit, fees that the city hadn't collected in the past), smoothed the way for the neighborhood's request.
Like residents in other Eichler tracts, Thompson and her neighbors framed the issue as one of protecting their area's distinct Eichler identity one that facilitates a seamless transition between indoor and outdoor space by encouraging low buildings with glass doors leading to the backyard.
"We've been united in our efforts house by house, street by street, young and old, long-time residents and new residents alike," Thompson said. "We are united in our desire to hold on to the privacy, sunlight and use of nature enjoyed from within these homes."
To prove her point, Thompson showed the council photos of the neighborhood's recent block party, which she said attracted a small fleet of hot rods and more than 100 residents of all ages. She also read statements from several residents, including Tiffany and Howard Chang, who recently moved into Los Arboles, a neighborhood that includes Holly Oak Drive, Cork Oak Way and several lots on Ames Avenue and Middlefield Road.
"A neighborhood of Eichlers' custodians is rare and important in preserving a piece of history," the Changs wrote. "And also, because the Eichlers, like the Golden State Warriors, have strengths in numbers."
The council was just as united as the neighbors in approving the single-story overlay. Councilman Tom DuBois cited the high level of support (no one spoke in opposition to the zone change) and said he hopes to see other neighborhoods come forward with their own requests for single-story overlays soon. He noted, however, that while the zoning designation prohibits two-story homes, it does not mandate that new homes follow the Eichler style.
"Tonight's action is about privacy," DuBois said. "It doesn't mandate design in any way."
Other council members quickly added their own voices of support, with Councilwoman Liz Kniss calling the decision a "no-brainer" and Vice Mayor Greg Schmid characterizing the new overlay as a great mechanism for supporting the scientists, engineers, economists and other professionals who choose to raise their families in Palo Alto.
"This is the perfect ingredient for a community of an ever renewing Silicon Valley a workforce that's extremely talented, very mobile and wants to live here," he said.
In addition to supporting the new overlay, some council members suggested that staff explore a new zoning mechanism that would focus on designs of new homes.
Mayor Karen Holman noted that some cities have "conservation" or "preservation" overlays that require new homes to be built in a similar style to existing ones. Cupertino, for instance, has a special Eichler Single Family Residential District with specific design guidelines to facilitate construction of Eichler-style homes in a small portion of the city where such homes are prevalent.
Councilman Pat Burt said the creation of design-oriented overlay district is a topic that could be discussed as part of the city's ongoing effort to update its land-use bible, the Comprehensive Plan.
Holman said the idea of a design-specific overlay is a topic that some Palo Alto residents have expressed interest in.
"I know there's been a conversation about that," she said. "I'd certainly support them coming forward with that kind of an effort."