Council halts Royal Manor's bid to ban two-story homes | News | Palo Alto Online |


Council halts Royal Manor's bid to ban two-story homes

With opposition mounting, Palo Alto officials shift focus to improving design rules in Eichler neighborhood

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A divisive proposal to ban new two-story homes in the Royal Manor neighborhood faltered at the finish line Monday night when Palo Alto officials decided after a long debate not to move ahead with a zone change requested by more than 60 percent of neighborhood residents.

Instead, after hearing from dozens of people who live in the Joseph Eichler-developed neighborhood in south Palo Alto, the City Council directed the city's planning staff to focus its efforts on a broader and more complex solution: special design guidelines that would apply to new homes in Eichler tracts.

In directing staff by a 7-0 vote (with Councilmen Greg Schmid and Cory Wolbach recusing because they live in Royal Manor) to start working on design guidelines, the council attempted to offer some reassurance to residents in neighborhoods where opposition to two-story homes has become particularly vehement in the last year.

Proponents of a what's known as a "single-story overlay" zone have argued that two-story homes clash with the Eichler aesthetic and deprive neighbors of their privacy.

The same argument was made in recent months by residents of Los Arboles and Greer Park North, Eichler neighborhoods that recently achieved the zone change. But things went askew in Royal Manor, where waning support for the zone change ultimately dogged the petition effort. Though initially, 70 percent of the property owners signed a petition supporting the overlay (the exact threshold for the zone change), more than a dozen subsequently reversed their position and asked that their signatures be removed. By Monday, the level of support ebbed to 63 percent.

Even so, supporters of the zone change were within a single vote of getting the overlay passed. Ultimately, after a lengthy debate, the council voted 4-3 not to move ahead with the change, with council members Tom DuBois, Karen Holman and Liz Kniss recommending that the city adopt the ban for up to a year. A temporary overlay zone would serve as a moratorium while the city works on a permanent solution that would be more universally embraced within the neighborhood, the three said.

The council's division mirrored the community's. DuBois observed that the petition had the needed 70 percent support at the time the application was submitted. Because it technically met the requirement, DuBois said, the city should grant residents the single-story overlay.

"Even though support has dropped, we still have a large majority of 63 percent," DuBois said. "I think we need to provide some interim protection."

The four council members who opposed banning two-story homes -- Councilmen Marc Berman and Eric Filseth, Vice Mayor Greg Scharff and Mayor Pat Burt -- cited problems with Royal Manor's petition drive and maintained that the city's existing appeals process is sufficient in protecting the neighborhood from what residents refer to as "two-story teardowns."

One problem was the "Frequently Asked Questions" paper that was distributed early in the process, which incorrectly implied that those signing the petition were only enabling a formal vote at a later date. Though overlay supporters corrected this error, some Royal Manor residents argued that the discrepancy created a false impression and effectively made the petition effort illegitimate.

Burt called the Royal Manor application the most difficult single-story overlay submittal that he had encountered in his nearly two decades on the council and the city's planning commission. Because, under the existing rules, ban supporters are the ones in control of the petition process, making the signatures binding is problematic, he said.

"I think the assertion that people should not be allowed to rescind their support between the time they're first presented -- whenever they are presented -- and when it comes to the council is really to me not appropriate," Burt said.

Berman agreed and said the petition did not garner the needed support for approval. Approving an ordinance despite the problems with the petition drive would be "going in the wrong direction," he said, from the process, government and public-perception standpoints.

Much like on April 25, when the council first took up the subject, dozens of residents addressed their elected leaders to make their case for and against the ban on two-story buildings. Proponents stressed that an overlay is the best way to protect Eichlers from getting demolished and replaced with taller buildings that would allow their inhabitants to peer into their neighbors' backyards and living quarters.

"An SSO (single-story overlay) is an important way of preserving the neighborhood and defend against teardowns, even if we're in the process of developing a better way for Palo Alto in the future to ensure the maintenance of these classic homes," Richard Willits said.

Opponents at Monday's meeting noted that 19 of the neighborhood's 203 homes are already two stories in height.

"It really boggles my mind how they can vote yes on the SSO and enjoy the benefits (of a second-story home) and, on the other hand, I'm robbed of the same privilege that they used and enjoyed for decades," said Hobart Sze, who lives between two two-story homes on Loma Verde Avenue.

Unmesh Vartak argued that the petition never had the required 70 percent of support and lamented the "misinformation" that was spread during the petition effort. Many Royal Manor residents, he told the council, live on small lots that are located in the flood plain and face setback restrictions that would make expansion virtually impossible if two-story additions were prohibited. He noted that Royal Manor has many multi-generation families that need the extra space.

"If there is no room to grow, the families will be pushed out," Vartak said.

Overlay opponents clapped and cheered after the council voted not to move ahead with the zone change, even on an interim basis. But for the proponents, the effort wasn't a total loss. By pledging to revise the design guidelines, the City Council is adopting an approach used in cities like Sunnyvale and Cupertino, which already have special rules for Eichler neighborhoods. These rules aim to ensure that when a two-story home is built, its design is such that it doesn't affect the sunlight and privacy of neighbors.

Burt and his colleagues acknowledged that the city's existing "individual review" process for new two-story homes isn't stringent enough to ensure architectural compatibility. He and his colleagues all supported taking a closer look at revising design guidelines to ensure better compatibility -- a change that also has broad support from both sides of Royal Manor's contentious debate.

"If I were going forward with allowing second-story homes in Eichler neighborhoods, I'd want much stronger guidelines on privacy and mass and all of those issues," Burt said.

Related content:

Palo Alto's Eichler uprising: City looks for ways to promote architectural — and neighborhood — harmony


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51 people like this
Posted by Win-Win
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 3, 2016 at 1:00 am

Great decision made by Council tonight,

Privacy concerns and property rights are both important and design guidelines is the best proposal that will keep everyone happy and will help all Eichler neighborhoods.

31 people like this
a resident of College Terrace
on May 3, 2016 at 5:33 am

SEA_SEELAM REDDY is a registered user.

Great civic activity. Both sides have presented their reasons. City council is right to take some time to get the process working better.

Democracy works. Palo Alto wins.


28 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 3, 2016 at 7:03 am

I don't see why this should be a "all or nothing" situation. We should be able to get some middle ground here. Restrictions to the size of the second story, restrictions on side windows with frosted glass only, restrictions for all bathroom windows to be frosted, restrictions on balconies, etc. could all make everyone feel a lot happier about such things.

Let's get some second story restrictions in our codes. It makes a lot of sense.

26 people like this
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 3, 2016 at 7:35 am

If you're thinking of building up, do it now!

23 people like this
Posted by Win/Win a caring neighborhood on both sides and a great compromise!
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 3, 2016 at 8:15 am

CLEARLY if one listened carefully to the more than 80 residents that spoke to the city council over the course of two meetings-- you know that EVERYONE on both sides CARES DEEPLY ABOUT NEIGHBORHOOD!!
I am confident that going forward our 200+ homes and its residents WILL be better informed about the vital need and importance of taking their neighbors PRIVACY into account when planning any kind of remodel or new building. Everyone learned a lot.

The city council did the right thing for royal manor in being willing to seriously review all new applications coming next down the pipeline, whilendirecting the planning commission to design building guidelines to be used in the future that will guide new building in our neighborhood that WILL TAKE PRIVACY and quite possibly aesthetics into proper account so we ALL BENEFIT.

38 people like this
Posted by So Glad
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 3, 2016 at 8:51 am

I am feeling very happy right now that we decided NOT to buy in an Eichler neighborhood.

My husband loves Eichlers, but I rented one with roommates and grew to hate their ever-increasing faults as they age--lack of privacy is a big one for me.

6 people like this
Posted by Good outcome
a resident of Midtown
on May 3, 2016 at 9:37 am

Really happy to see this outcome. Property rights were preserved and there is guidance to examine design guidelines for 2 story homes in Eichler neighborhood. This makes so much more sense than just blindly imposing an outright ban.

Does anyone know how soon a neighborhood can re-apply for SSO? For instance can Royal Manor come back and apply again any time they are able to reach the 70% approval threshold or is there some time period that must elapse to reapply?

45 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto Home Owner
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 3, 2016 at 10:38 am

City Council should do the right thing by rejecting SSO for Royal Manor neighborhood because it is less than 70%.

The signature gathering process is a bullying process and it is deceiving process. If a legitimate voting procedure was used, the support level would be much much lower.

There are already many 2-story homes in Royal Manor and When we bought our homes, there is no SSO restriction stated in any clause and it should not start now or anytime in the future.

No to Royal Manor SSO .

6 people like this
Posted by Stories
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 3, 2016 at 10:46 am

Royal Madness.

26 people like this
Posted by JFP
a resident of Midtown
on May 3, 2016 at 10:59 am

As a proponent of the SSO, I could have lived with this decision, if the temporary SSO had passed. Given the way Palo Alto works, I'll be amazed if the proposed improved IR process or Eichler design guidelines are in effect before years have passed. In the meantime, the residents of Royal Manor have no protection other than the deeply flawed IR process that led to residents pursuing the SSO overlay in the first place.

29 people like this
Posted by Eichlerfan
a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 3, 2016 at 11:17 am

So I am glad to hear the woman who doesn't like eichlers to not move to one to plan on tearing it down. I am very frustrated with the people who want to move to the less expensive part of town but then to want to tear down the Eicher home to build a monstrosity. It not only has privacy issue but light issues and it isn't fair for people who bought their home prior. I think if people want to tear down an eichler they should be hold to eicher guidelines. As someone said we don't need columned homes in the Eichler trac area. If you don't like Eichlers than don't buy one. Move on

28 people like this
Posted by less than ideal
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 3, 2016 at 11:26 am

I agree with JFP. A real compromise would have been the TEMPORARY SSO proposal that provides some safeguards from a scrape off of an Eichler by someone hoping to build a "starter castle" in the months ahead (as happened across from the Eichler swim club, just outside the Royal Manor area). Yes it was somewhat below 70%, but the Dubois proposal was for essentially a 6-12 month "pause" on building second stories, not any kind of permanent ban that would relate to the 70% requirement in the first place. I doubt that anything meaningful to address privacy and esthetic preservation will be done for years as the city administrators talked at length during the meeting that they were overwhelmed with projects throughout the city. All very nice talk, but let's see if this gets translated into meaningful action.

29 people like this
Posted by We Like Eichlers
a resident of South of Midtown
on May 3, 2016 at 11:48 am

So Pat Burt votes with the moneyed interests again.
Lots of "sincere" talk then vote with the real estate lawyers.
Again and again.

27 people like this
Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 3, 2016 at 11:50 am

Finally, the council did something right.
I quite frankly am very tired of neighbors trying to interfere with the PROPERTY RIGHTS OF OTHER NEIGHBORS.

If individual persons want to place a deed restriction on their own property, then do it, but don't try to sell your property, because some of those deed restrictions can make your "valuable Eichler" worthless.

Imcidentally, does everyone know that Joe Eichler/ Anshen & Allen designed the "Eichler" and they did not meet all the building codes at that time. The codes were reluctantly re-written to accommodate the need for housing after WW2.

5 people like this
Posted by LookForSolutions
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 3, 2016 at 12:23 pm

Diane Reklis write a good opinion piece in the Weekly here Web Link.
I hope that the Council/Staff follows her lead.

1 person likes this
Posted by He We go
a resident of another community
on May 3, 2016 at 1:03 pm

[Post removed.]

12 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 3, 2016 at 1:21 pm

While I'm slightly disappointed that the SSO petition didn't pass, I think the unanimous support for the guidelines is a great alternative that relatively satisfies both sides. I'm glad at least something is going to be done about outta whack houses that have been appearing recently. However it is such a shame that it took so much drama and to get the city to finally do something about this longstanding issue... Lets hope they keep their promise and aren’t just sweet talking us.

Having more stringent design guidelines will do more to protect the neighborhoods from being slowly erased in the long run. An SSO doesn't guarantee that somebody won’t just tear down the house and build something out-of-style with the surrounding Eichlers anyways. A big issue with a lot of Eichlers is that many are woefully neglected and easily fall into disrepair while some new homeowners find them spacially inadequate, so if the new guidelines are setup properly it could reduce the incentive to completely tear down current homes and instead repair and build add-ons to the existing ones all within design regulation and respect for privacy/sunlight. Sure, this still doesn’t protect the originality of what the developer envisioned but I think the more important thing at this point is to keep Eichler neighborhoods looking like Eichler neighborhoods with their mid-century modern style.

On my second thought, It’s mind boggling to me that some homeowners are willfully ignorant of their neighborhood and inhabitants next door without seemingly caring for any negative side effects they may impart upon. It’s ridiculous that some owners think that just because they paid some higher amount for their home means that their vote/opinions/rights are more important than surrounding homeowners and can do whatever they want unrestricted, especially in such a neighborhood like Royal Manor where space and privacy is incredibly limited. There needs to be a better process in which existing neighbors can voice their concerns and be given rights against those rebuilding in an intrusive manner. If an equilibrium is maintained among all the neighbors to keep things in check, things will be much more fair for everybody living here.

8 people like this
Posted by Corrupt Politician
a resident of Community Center
on May 3, 2016 at 2:14 pm

[Post removed.]

11 people like this
Posted by Money Wins
a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 3, 2016 at 3:11 pm

Over-sized Stucco "boxes" and big developer money wins over the PA council majority even though 60% of Royal residents voted for the SSO. The SoCal mentality is now alive and well here in PA-welcome to dense pack housing and miniscule side yards. Now Joe Eichler is blamed for not adhering to building codes-really? Quite a fairy tale from Senor Blogger!sfUWk

17 people like this
Posted by Concerned Party
a resident of Midtown
on May 3, 2016 at 3:25 pm

Seems like a good solution was reached. I think the design review process is great (thought no doubt lengthy). They can make sure that the additions do not adversely impact neighbors, but will let someone get more space. Great points are made here about the flood plane, setbacks. Also, what a great point that no one who already has a 2 story home should really fairly be permitted to vote on this issue.

I also think that supporters of the SSO should stop trying to characterize opponents as somehow part of some "big money" club, or lawyers. I mean, people are entitled to have an opinion - you are trying to restrict how someone can use their land in a way that was never indicated when they purchased it. So, can you blame them for being upset?

3 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on May 3, 2016 at 3:47 pm

I thought the councilmembers said their lines very well.

1 person likes this
Posted by Here We Go
a resident of another community
on May 3, 2016 at 3:53 pm

[Post removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by Resident 2
a resident of Barron Park
on May 3, 2016 at 5:43 pm

[Post removed.]

17 people like this
Posted by Resident 2
a resident of Barron Park
on May 3, 2016 at 5:55 pm

"So Pat Burt votes with the moneyed interests again.
Lots of "sincere" talk then vote with the real estate lawyers.
Again and again."

Just remember this when you vote in the next local election.

8 people like this
Posted by long time midtown
a resident of Midtown
on May 3, 2016 at 7:06 pm

More guidelines. Just like the existing residential guidelines that the planning department routinely ignores. I'm sure they'll be consistent and ignore any future guidelines too.

6 people like this
Posted by unsenor
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 3, 2016 at 8:10 pm

[Post removed.]

6 people like this
Posted by Huh?
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 4, 2016 at 1:47 am

What's with that formerly controversial two-story house across from Eichler Swim Club on Louis Road? I saw a moving truck there the other day.

15 people like this
Posted by Longtime Palo Alto Owner
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 4, 2016 at 9:19 am

Guidelines do not work. Individual Review (IR) process allows McMansion overlooking people's yard and living area. Only a zoning restriction will work.
Look what is happening in Sunnyvale where they have design guidelines. Eichler neighborhoods are going for Single-Story Overlay (SSO) and winning them. The City Council listened to what the majority of owners wants and what is best for the community. They seem to be less influenced by political considerations like ours.

6 people like this
Posted by res4
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 4, 2016 at 2:50 pm

Both referenced examples of bullying presented to the council were invented. The claimants even admitted privately that they were not true when confronted with the facts. Unfortunate that it kept getting referenced.

33 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto Home Owner
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 4, 2016 at 4:58 pm

Reply to "res4":

Bullying does exist in the signature gathering process.

If you support the proposal, of course you might not feel it.

But for people who is against SSO, we definitely felt it.
We have first-hand experience similar to the people who spoke
in the city council meeting.

7 people like this
Posted by JFP_SF
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 4, 2016 at 5:46 pm

The whole "bullying" thing is baffling to me. How exactly was anyone bullied? You don't want to sign a petition; don't sign it.

10 people like this
Posted by Money Wins
a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 4, 2016 at 9:42 pm

I wonder where these "2nd storiers" are from originally. San Fernando Valley? Orange County? West Los Angeles?

Must be from places where there isn't any distinctive architecture.

The original Eichler architects-Anschen & Allen, Claude Oakland, A. Quincy Jones were all ahead of their time as the concept of planned communities made its debut in the early 50s.

Guess when you haven't been exposed to significantly interesting homes, stucco boxes, 6 or 7 gables on over-sized 2-story mansions are what "great homes" mean.

Like this comment
Posted by @Money Wins
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 4, 2016 at 11:20 pm

I'll hazard to venture that many are from places with significantly higher population densities. In the old days when these neighborhoods were built, many buyers came from rural areas. The opportunities here were attractive, but the living conditions were relatively claustrophobic at the time.

1 person likes this
Posted by Senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 5, 2016 at 10:45 am

To: Palo Alto Home Owner:
Sunnyvale is not considered to be the Best Run City in the area.
If you like it so much, Move there.

5 people like this
Posted by Money Wins
a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 5, 2016 at 12:28 pm

Sunnyvale has Eichler neighborhoods that have restrictions against McMansions-suppose senor blogger considers them "not up to code" because he believes that Joe Eichler "designed" all of his own developments. Time for credibility here.

12 people like this
Posted by Me
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 6, 2016 at 1:53 pm

I find it ironic that the more "established" (i.e. expensive) neighborhoods in Palo Alto don't seem to find the need for these additional overlays. And yes, there's a lot of construction in those neighborhoods as well.

But then maybe we appreciate the diversity of architecture it brings.

I love midcentury as much as anyone (I am a big fan of Dwell Magazine, I admit), but I find the fetishizing of Eichlers to be kind of weird.

But really, I bet this isn't about midcentury or Eichler. It's about people afraid of change. If you really want to be honest about preserving the past, we should be bulldozing these Eichlers and putting orchards back in. Seriously.

1 person likes this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 6, 2016 at 2:47 pm

No, climate change is about people afraid of change.

16 people like this
Posted by Raindrop
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 6, 2016 at 3:27 pm

No one here is talking about the "bullying" that was done by the SSO opponents, who went door to door telling owners they did not understand what they signed, telling them they will lose $1M if they did not remove their signature.
It was a classic example of FUD - Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt, a disinformation strategy used in politics and propaganda. It worked!
The Pro side had been working for one year and a half passing verified information and talking to neighbors in a respectful way. In a few weeks the SSO opponents turned a harmonious neighborhood into one of hatred. They refuse to come to a compromise. The silent majority lost. The vocal and aggressive minority won.

5 people like this
Posted by Money Wins
a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 6, 2016 at 4:06 pm

That form of bullying petition signers is an LA County tactic by a developer syndicate aka "the mob". Watch for the "stucco boxes" to start appearing in this neighborhood.

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