Cottage clusters becoming a thing of the past? | News | Palo Alto Online |


Cottage clusters becoming a thing of the past?

Advocates: Lacking city protection, eight bungalows could be razed

These four bungalows at 231 Churchill Ave. could be demolished after the sale of the property, if the new landowner decides to replace them with a single-family home. Photo by Sue Dremann.

Palo Alto could soon lose two cottage clusters, the small groupings of bungalows built between the 1930s and 1950s that some people say are a vital part of the city's diverse housing stock.

A few have disappeared in recent years, including four cottages at 821-877 Hamilton Ave. and five cottages at 920-928 Addison Ave.

City Councilwoman Karen Holman said recently that something should be done to protect the clusters of bungalows, which are also called cottage courts.

"Cottage clusters provide housing for many who otherwise would not be able to live in Palo Alto due not only to their size typically being smaller, and thus somewhat less expensive, but also because they expand the number of housing opportunities that exist," she said in an email. "When that stock is eroded, it works against any small effort made to promote housing in this, a very expensive market with limited land to add units."

The little homes generally range from roughly 560 square feet to about 1,000 square feet.

All over town, she said, zoning codes don't recognize the difference between a single home on a lot and a cottage court, she said.

"What is needed is a new policy that provides a legal backdrop for enforceable code to protect our rich and eroding housing resources," Holman said.

In January, a property with four cottages in the 700 block of Channing Avenue sold for $6.3 million, according to the real estate website Zillow. Nine months later, the new property owner is proposing to demolish the bungalows and build two larger, two-story homes: an approximately 3,749 square-foot house with a detached garage; and a 3,750 square-foot home with a basement, detached garage and swimming pool, according to documents filed with the Palo Alto planning department.

About a mile away, four more cottages face an uncertain future. The property at 231 Churchill Ave. is up for sale for $12.8 million. Alain Pinel Realtors noted in its advertisement that the property could be an investment, with projected rents for each of the two currently vacant units at $4,300 per month. But that's not the only option advertised.

"Perfectly situated with mature trees on the perimeter, this rectangular 100' wide by 200' deep lot is ideal for someone to build their estate home. ... Max floor area 6,750 (square feet) (not including basement)," the advertisement notes.

In 2016, Palo Alto had about 15 known clusters dotting the city. City historic-resources Planner Matt Weintraub said at the time that the city does not have a complete list of the cottage courts.

Hillary Gitelman, director of Planning and Community Environment, said her department is currently working on a package of housing regulations to take to the City Council immediately after it adopts a revised Comprehensive Plan this fall.

"We will be looking at incentives to preserve cottage clusters as part of that effort," she said.

But Holman and others said more can be done now. The city could vote to change existing ordinances whenever it chooses, Holman said.

Marni Barnes, who has lived in a cottage cluster in the 800 block of Boyce Avenue for more than 30 years, said that planning staff must better understand where the cottage courts are located and when an applicant's proposal threatens them. The city's Individual Review guidelines governing residential developments are not strong enough, she said.

"It is not part of the city's protocol to do a site visit when an application is submitted. The city has no real idea what the neighborhood character or pattern is, and in the case of the cottage clusters, the city would not even be aware that the project was part of an existing cluster," Barnes said.

Current guidelines put cottages at risk, she said. Planners who review proposals for residential properties consider whether an architect's project fits into the overall "streetscape." But a stated goal of the Individual Review guidelines is that the project should be consistent with the existing "neighborhood pattern."

A streetscape and a neighborhood pattern can be two very different things, she noted. Cottage clusters in particular are micro-neighborhoods within a neighborhood.

Where Barnes lives, the residents own the four cottages. In 2016, the new owner of one bungalow proposed a two-story, 2,043-square-foot remodel, which would tower over the remaining three. The proposal might fit the "streetscape" of the larger surrounding neighborhood, but it would not fit the neighborhood character of the cottage court, she said.

She and her neighbors are working with city planners and a consulting architect to find a solution.

But "in the end, despite all of these efforts, (the character of) our cottage cluster will be destroyed," she said.

Arthur Keller, who was a Planning and Transportation commissioner in 2007 when the city codified Village Residential zoning — designed to encourage construction of cottages and other small units — said that cottage courts and single bungalows provide lower-priced housing and preserve the diversity of the community.

Palo Alto should consider imposing an affordable-housing impact fee whenever redevelopment reduces the number of affordable homes, both to discourage their removal and to pay for building lower-income housing, Keller said.

Holman said that cottages are not typically below-market rate units, however, so legally there cannot be a requirement to "replace" them with below-market-rate housing.

There is some hope for cottage advocates, however.

Part of the revised Comp Plan, known as the Land Use Designations, will go to the City Council later this year, and it proposes a policy to "recognize the contribution of cottage-cluster housing to the character of Palo Alto and retain and encourage this type of development."

The city's required Housing Element, a document that outlines where housing could be built, also supports small housing, though not specifically cottage clusters. It provides incentives to developers in the form of reduced fees and flexible development standards to encourage the preservation of existing rental cottages and duplexes currently in the single- and two-family residential neighborhoods. It also has a five-year objective to "preserve 10 rental cottages and duplexes" with funding from the city Housing Fund and to explore incentives within three years of the Housing Element adoption.


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50 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Oct 13, 2017 at 8:00 am

Thank you to councilmember Holman and to Ms. Dremman for shining a light on this very important issue!

Cottage clusters are a very important and charming part of our neighborhoods and we cannot allow them to be destroyed and replaced by McMansions!
Quite often they are historically significant as well!

It is not enough to discourage replacing them we must past a law to prohibit replacing them!

44 people like this
Posted by Community Member
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 13, 2017 at 8:43 am

Fantastic article - I had no idea cottage clusters were at risk.
City council please pay attention to this and help protect our cottage clusters.

19 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 13, 2017 at 9:05 am

I saw the newspaper ad that these were for sale in order for someone to build a mansion on Churchill. Very sorry.

23 people like this
Posted by Can we rezone to keep the cottages?
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 13, 2017 at 11:04 am

Can we rezone to keep the cottages? is a registered user.

Couldn't we rezone the existing cottage cluster to multi-family instead of R-1, with the caveat that only the same number of units could be constructed. The lot on Churchill would be a great place to keep multi-family housing, it is walking distance to Cal Ave, University and El Camino. There are several pockets of R-2 housing in Old Palo Alto, including some less than a block away on Churchill. Some of Alma in Old Palo Alto is R-15. A great place to increase density truly near transit.

5 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 13, 2017 at 1:40 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

Just another case of the diminishing effort to preserve and protect housing as we knew it back in the 50's, 60's, 70's, and beyond. Oh, our wonderful Housing Element will save and preserve all that. Hah! hah!

55 people like this
Posted by Francie
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 13, 2017 at 1:57 pm

I love our cottage cluster. It is a community within a town. We help each other when someone has surgery, we water each other's plants, feed each other's pets, etc. I could never afford to live in Palo Alto if it weren't for my cottage. I own it, not rent. They are well built, well maintained and charming. City Council Members- please protect my and my neighbor's homes. I promise we are citizens worth having in Palo Alto.

6 people like this
Posted by commonsense
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 13, 2017 at 2:02 pm

The city should buy them and call it affordable housing. Better yet, Holman and the commenters here should buy them and preserve them. Council, please spend your time on useful tasks, not this achieve nothing bs for political gain. We have a housing CRISIS!!!

30 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 13, 2017 at 3:11 pm

So ridiculous that we don't assiduously protect the housing we have. And what about all the fad for micro- units and here we have more modest housing that we allow to be demolished for expensive housing.

Our policy and laws don't make sense - or we are hypocrites.

22 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 13, 2017 at 4:19 pm

Cottage courts are doomed. They have too many amenities, like open space, that make living in them pleasant for their inhabitants, but less profitable for their owners. Yuuuge violation of the Silicon Valley ethic there.

10 people like this
Posted by No
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 13, 2017 at 4:22 pm

It's one thing to say protect housing but what is really going on is limiting the right of the land owners to develop these properties when they have absolute right to do it. The city can use taxpayer money to buy them if it wants, but let's see the uproar on that.

7 people like this
Posted by Developer
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 13, 2017 at 4:25 pm

If the city genuinely wants to preserve cottages, it should relax the rules for subdividing the lots. Both of the lots on Channing and Churchill are perfect candidates for smaller homes on smaller lots because their locations are not prime. However, the city does not allow subdivision of such lots.

39 people like this
Posted by realtor for the newly rich
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 13, 2017 at 5:02 pm

Alain Pinel Realtors advertises: "lot is ideal for someone to build their estate home."
I wonder whether the realtor cares how disliked they are in town. When I receive one of their expensive magazine-advertisements I hasten to recycle it, it makes my stomach turn. Toss perfectly good people out so you can build an estate. Yuk.
Such bad taste, such a loud display of wealth by the newly rich.

31 people like this
Posted by Rose
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 13, 2017 at 5:17 pm

The courts are charming. They have been in Palo Alto for a long time, and they are part of what we all like here. Removing them would be a mistake. They are charming and a part of Palo Alto that should definitely stay.

19 people like this
Posted by End of story
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 13, 2017 at 7:08 pm

I believe that these lots are private property. Is the city considering buying them? If not, then end of story. We all know that Holman likes old (“historic”)things, but that is no excuse to abrogate private property rights.

13 people like this
Posted by Jean
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Oct 15, 2017 at 9:06 am

I agree that there should be some way of retaining these cottage clusters. Not only do they add charm to Palo Alto, but, more importantly, they offer much-needed additional housing.

3 people like this
Posted by Progress Sucks
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 15, 2017 at 9:24 am

To argue that cottages are inexpensive housing, or somehow promote diversity is naive. The cottages are almost as expensive as any home because it is the LAND that they sit on that is expensive - not the structure.

Folks, the Dam has already broken and the flood of workers, cars, and cash only buyers is way past the point of turning around. Time to accept the new reality and build up the place. I tried to stop it 10 years ago when we saw this coming, but it is too late now and there is no gong back. Denser and higher is the only path at this point. I wish we could be a community of cottages - I wish I could stop global warming - I wish I could house and feed the poor.

4 people like this
Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 15, 2017 at 12:56 pm

From Karen Holman in the article: "Cottage clusters provide housing for many who otherwise would not be able to live in Palo Alto due not only to their size typically being smaller, and thus somewhat less expensive, but also because they expand the number of housing opportunities that exist," "

This is hilarious. For many?!

It provides housing for *very few* people.

If Karen were really about fixing our housing situation, what she would do is push forth that cottage clusters need to continue to be multiunit, regardless of development.

Instead, she really is for maintaining the mono-ethnic identity of Palo Alto.

13 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 15, 2017 at 1:56 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

"Mono-ethnic identity of Palo Alto"?????

Palo Alto's already 40% Asian. So says one of the slick realtor brochures I got last week from a firm known to offer bus tours and other inducements to Asian real estate investors.

1 person likes this
Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 15, 2017 at 2:08 pm

[Post removed.]

18 people like this
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 15, 2017 at 2:32 pm

Old Palo Alto and Crescent Park are two neighborhoods without any BMR, high density development. Those neighborhoods are suffering from a lack of diversity. Palo Alto Housing Corporation should purchase these opportunities, ask the council to rezone to RM-45, and develop a 40 - 50 unit complex so that these neighborhoods can have the benefits of diversity those residents so ardently support.

2 people like this
Posted by Eric
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 15, 2017 at 10:14 pm

It definitely sounds pretty ridiculous to try to dictate what a property owner can do within the rules. As long as zoning is fair and applied equally to everyone I respect the right of the city to do it. So many people on here are so quick with their opinions of what others should be allowed to do. Change the rules, just for this one property! Don't let anything change!

2 people like this
Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 16, 2017 at 5:32 pm

"Old Palo Alto and Crescent Park are two neighborhoods... suffering from a lack of diversity."

You clearly haven't been to Old Palo Alto or Crescent Park lately.

Like this comment
Posted by Cottages vs. Tiny Houses
a resident of another community
on Oct 21, 2017 at 8:09 am

Aren't cottages the precursors of tiny houses -often presented as one of the solutions to housing shortage (see: Web Link) -?

Shouldn't Palo Alto try to preserve them?

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