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.