In a decision that left the majority in the audience cheering and a sizable minority seething, Palo Alto officials agreed early Tuesday morning to ban two-story homes in the Greer Park North neighborhood.
By a unanimous vote, the City Council agreed in the waning minutes of a long meeting to support the request from residents for a "single-story overlay," a zoning designation that prohibits two-story homes in Eicher neighborhoods where more than 70 percent of the residents support the restriction.
The residents of Greer Park North, an Eichler-style enclave that includes Metro and Moffett circles and portions of Greer Road and Amarillo Avenue, met this criteria and, as a result, became the latest community to join the emerging trend.
The council's vote came about a month after members supported a similar request from the Los Arboles neighborhood. In each case, proponents of the overlay argued that a ban on two-story homes would help preserve the Eichler character of their neighborhoods, which are marked by clusters of short, glass-heavy houses.
In each case, they argued that taller homes would destroy the Eichler vibe and more importantly allow residents of the new taller homes to peer from above into neighbors' backyards and bedrooms. In each case, the City Council unanimously agreed.
The council's vote belied, however, the deep division in the neighborhood, where a vocal minority staunchly opposed the new restriction. About 30 people attended the Monday meeting and waited around until well past midnight to offer their views. More than 15 addressed the council and urged members to help them preserve either their neighborhood character or property rights, depending on which side was talking.
David Hammond, who applied for the overlay, made the case for the zone change by pointing to the numbers. A petition from the community showed 50 of the 72 property owners supporting the change, a rate of 72 percent. Because these homes have covenants that prohibit two-story homes, the threshold for the neighborhood was 60 percent. Neighborhoods without the covenants require 70 percent. Either way, Greer Park North cleared the democratic hurdle.
Resident Dorrit Billman was one of many to speak in favor of the zone change. When residents buy homes in the neighborhood, they accept the fact that they will have to maintain its scale as a common resource, she said.
"The houses agree not to impinge on each other's privacy and each other's line of sight and sunlight that creates a shared value for the neighborhood," Billman said. "I believe it is extremely valuable and should continue to be supported."
Richard Billington, who lives on Amarillo, agreed, saying, two-story homes "destroy the character and the intentional design of the Eichler neighborhood.
"Ample addition can be made without a second story," Billington said.
But others argued that any future addition would now require them to sacrifice their side yards or backyards an issue of particular significance for properties on Greer and Amarillo, which tend to be smaller than the ones in the two circles.
Julia Li, who lives on Amarillo, made the point that residents would have to sacrifice their open space for any kind of expansion. She also noted that her street already includes a mix of architectural styles: ranch homes, Eichlers and others. She was one of several speakers who told the council that she would prefer to keep options open.
Kiran Joshi, who has a 10- and 12-year-old son, was one of several residents who told the council that their families are outgrowing the available space.
"Even though we still love the house, it's not always meeting our needs," Joshi said. "We just don't have the room that we need. The house was built in the 1950s and times have changed. We need more storage; we need more room."
To opponents of the zone change, the council offered some words (but no votes) of sympathy. Councilman Marc Berman said he was "not happy" about the vote, a position that he acknowledged he shares with many of the young families that attended the meeting.
"I hope the whole neighborhood realized tonight that there's a lot of folks who invested a lot of money in their home and future, who will now be in a place where they weren't expecting (to be) and (which) they don't support," Berman said. "The super-majority rules and we have this ordinance in place. But I just hope folks realize that while some folks will be happy, a lot of folks will be pretty bummed."
The council also rejected a recommendation from the Planning and Transportation Commission, which recommended approving the restriction solely for the two circles, which include 47 of the 72 properties. The commission reasoned that because Metro and Moffett circles tend to have larger lots and a higher level of support from residents for the two-story ban, they should comprise the entire overlay district.
That idea didn't get traction with the council. Councilman Tom DuBois made the case for not "gerrymandering" the district and called the overlay proposal "an exercise in shared neighborhood trust." He acknowledged that there's "a minority that's not happy with the majority," but argued that the council should respect the large number of people asking for the change.
"I understand some people aren't happy, but I think it's the right thing to do so I support the motion," DuBois said.