City hopes to restore Eichler harmony | News | Palo Alto Online |


City hopes to restore Eichler harmony

New guidelines aim to promote compatibility, ease friction between neighbors

The city of Palo Alto has compiled guidelines that describe the characteristics of homes developed last century by Joseph Eichler. Photo by Veronica Weber.

Ever since they made their Palo Alto debut in 1950, Eichler communities were intended to be more than the sum of their boxy, glassy parts.

Characterized by glass doors and large windows, flat or low-pitched roofs and ample backyards, developer Joseph Eichler's homes famously celebrated indoor/outdoor living. They also promoted a community ethos through use of common space, as evidenced by the community center, neighborhood park and swimming pool in Greenmeadow, one of two Eichler neighborhoods on the National Register of Historic Districts.

Yet these very qualities that have long united Eichler owners have also created rifts in many of the city's 31 subdivisions. Large new Spanish-style homes in Eichler enclaves like Faircourt have sparked outrage — and calls for action — from longtime homeowners. Some have appealed the approvals of proposed new houses that they deemed incompatible; others argue that two-story homes should be banned altogether.

The conflict hit its crescendo in 2015, when residents from four different tracts petitioned for "single-story overlay" districts, which prohibit new two-story homes and second-story additions. In a series of tense meetings, the council approved the requests from two neighborhoods (Los Arboles and Greer Park North) and rejected two others (Royal Manor and Faircourt).

In each case, the council weighed arguments of those who characterized two-story homes in Eichler neighborhoods as architectural blasphemy — a garish indulgence that threatens the privacy of neighbors and diminishes the aesthetic of the community — and those who see two-story homes or second-story additions as ways to accommodate multi-generational families and as legitimately entitled by property rights.

In an attempt to bridge the divide, council directed staff to draft special guidelines for constructing homes and additions in Eichler neighborhoods. On Feb. 22, the city's Historic Resources Board approved the guidelines, which are now set to go to the City Council for final approval this spring.

Even though the new guidelines are voluntary, they are already causing frustration and confusion among some Eichler owners. At the Feb. 22 meeting, some argued that the guidelines don't go far enough in protecting neighborhood character while others claimed that they are too proscriptive.

Michael Nierenberg, who owns a two-story Eichler, argued that the city conducted insufficient outreach. Staff sent postcards to each of the more than 2,000 Eichler homes, but only about 150 people, Nierenberg noted, were interviewed before the guidelines were crafted.

He was one of several residents who rejected the idea of "freezing Eichlers in time" by restricting design options.

"As new materials come along — and new looks and things — we might be missing out on siding, roofing and things that might make your house better, not worse," Nierenberg told the board.

Manas Madal, who lives in Fairmeadow, argued that adopting the new guidelines would infringe on the property rights of homeowners. If approved, the guidelines should stay voluntary and not subject to regulation by the city.

Others lauded the guidelines as a good step, even if they took issue with certain details. Diane Reklis, who has lived in an Eichler for 40 years, said the document has "lots of good stuff in it" but raised concerns about the document's provisions on accessory dwelling units. The guidelines allow homeowners to build detached housing that is up to 17 feet in height and 900 square feet in area.

If these small houses are positioned in the rear of the property (as the guidelines suggest), they will require occupants to walk past the main residence, possibly intruding on privacy, Reklis said. She also noted that 900 square feet is quite large in the context of Eichlers.

"You're taking half the size of a current Eichler and sticking it in the backyard," Reklis said.

The recommended 126-page document includes guidelines on everything from placement of doors and design of windows and roof forms to broad issues relating to cladding materials, massing and height. They encourage the builder to employ post-and-beam construction (which is synonymous with Eichlers); use roofing materials with a "flat, visually unobtrusive appearance"; and avoid historicist styles such as Mediterranean Revival and New-eclectic.

It also includes guidelines for constructing basements and first-story additions. Whenever possible, the document states, the project should avoid direct views into neighboring windows that may require additional privacy, including bedroom and bathroom windows.

Board Chair David Bower said that in recent meetings on the new guidelines, the issue that kept coming up was privacy. Residents said they were particularly concerned about second-story add-ons and neighbors peering through windows into their yards. The guidelines address these issues, he noted.

"While I don't think they are a perfect approach, I think they are a good start," Bower said.

Board member Michael Makinen pointed to another public concern: uncertainty over how the guidelines will be used. Though they are currently not subject to any regulations from the city, that can change, he noted.

"Yeah, we're calling it voluntary but is it really voluntary? I think there is a feeling ... that they may be more than what we advertise as voluntary." Makinen said.

It will ultimately be up to the council to decide how to use the new guidelines. The board considered various approaches toward incorporating the Eichler guidelines into the city's review process but refrained from specifying the exact nature of how or whether the rules should be enforced. They agreed that, when possible, the city should defer to neighborhood preferences. The board did vote 5-0, with Brandon Cory absent, to recommend that the new guidelines at least be used in tandem with the existing Individual Review process when considering two-story homes and second-story additions.

Councilwoman Karen Holman, the council's liaison to the Historic Resources Board, recalled the city's tendentious path toward the new guidelines and expressed hope that the new document will help tone down the acrimony and reduce the number of appeals being filed by residents concerned about the new house going up next door.

"We have neighbors fighting neighbors ... because of new construction, additions and such in Eichler neighborhoods," Holman said. "I see these (guidelines) as a resource to help abate those appeals and those battles within neighborhoods."


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5 people like this
Posted by Eichler Dweller
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 2, 2018 at 8:32 am

Interesting that we are told to put in low flow toilets and showers, update wiring and various other safety upgrades, but we are supposed to ignore other modern advantages. Castles in Europe now include flush toilets but they still look like a medieval castle. Eichlers can still look like an eichler even if they have modern siding, roof materials and up to date paint colors.

Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto

on Mar 2, 2018 at 9:23 am

Due to violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are only visible to registered users who are logged in. Use the links at the top of the page to Register or Login.

6 people like this
Posted by george drysdale
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 2, 2018 at 12:22 pm

Houses have an economic life of 45 years. Things wear out the plumbing the electrical, etc. Land valuation on in Silicon Valley is sky high the improvement should match the sky high land valuation. Knock them all down and use the increase in taxation to develop a better road system. Underground the transportation. Silicon Valley is a fabulously wealthy metro. I hate cities too but that's where the jobs are.
Geroge Drysdale land economist and initiator

9 people like this
Posted by Supply & Demand
a resident of Green Acres
on Mar 2, 2018 at 1:28 pm

It is time to stop meddling in other people's affairs. Certainly not on your neighbors.

There is already all kinds of building codes, city codes and reviews that governing the building activities!

Focus our attention on traffic, safety and financial obligations that is what local government suppose to do.

Work for majority and overall city well beings not caving to special small interest

15 people like this
Posted by MD from TO
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Mar 2, 2018 at 1:33 pm

"Knock them all down" and build what? Tracts filled with stucco boxes? Many Eichler owners have updated their electrical, plumbing, roofs, windows. These homes are much more desireable to live in than the new yuppified monstrosities that are creeping into Palo Alto. Pretty soon we can change the City of Palo Alto's name to the San Fernando Valley/Orange County North-Yikes!!

3 people like this
Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 2, 2018 at 1:49 pm

Allen Akin is a registered user.

In 120+ pages of "guidelines", you can find plenty of violations for any given project (or even houses that already exist). Though compliance with the guidelines is supposedly voluntary, you'll find that mandatory processes (like Individual Review) will use the guidelines as justification for disapproving projects, so you'll be forced to comply anyway. A small number of reviewers (usually consultants) will be responsible for interpreting the guidelines, so reviews will take longer and be subject to whims of interpretation by individual consultants. You'll lose some ability to deal with changing environment (increased train noise, increased traffic, nearby ADUs, reduced water availability, etc.) and changing requirements (additional family members, aging family members, hobbies, etc.). Projects are going to get more expensive. I wish the Eichler neighborhoods good luck; they have a lot of challenges ahead of them.

12 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Mar 2, 2018 at 1:50 pm

Supply & Demand: You don't understand the situation. Eichlers have windows so the homeowners can enjoy the sun and nature. There is a house on Elsinore Drive near Louis Road that appears to be a two-story house. One next door neighbor has to open their front door to the side of that house which has windows above which look down on the one-story Eichler. The owners have ruined the quality of living for their neighbors but they don't care. The neighbors might as well be living in an apartment complex because their bedroom windows look out to a wall extending way above their house. They didn't even design their house to align with any Eichler appearance, as they used stucco. They could have rebuilt but simply extended their house into the backyard so it would be at the same level as the neighbors'. Karma will get them eventually.

13 people like this
Posted by Eicheler owner
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 2, 2018 at 2:14 pm

Eichelers may embody the spirit of California Modernism in architecture, and many are beautiful and shining examples of this. Eichlers can be beautiful. But can we stop kidding ourselves that these are quality homes? They were cheaply built then, they are safety and maintenance nightmares now, and owners do not need additional city regulations on the appearance of their homes.

Does this mean no more central air mounted on rooftops to keep the clean roof line? All my neighbors have done this, and it looks like garbage. What about solar panels? Environmentally sound, but ugly as well. Are flood lights in the Eichler motif? What about landscaping? Where does this stop?

I have heard, 'if you didn't like the Eichler aesthetic you shouldn't have bought one". What I liked about my home was the price and location, not the structure. I counter with, if you wanted to live in an architecturally controlled community, you should have moved to one.

I am sorry for single story home owners who lose privacy to a new 2 story neighbor, but that is something that happens elsewhere and all home owners run the risk of having an 'ugly' house next door.

BTW.... how much of my house can I replace before it is no longer an Eichelr? I have a new foam roof and drywall inside. can I be excluded from these guidelines?

3 people like this
Posted by Eicheler owner
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 2, 2018 at 2:34 pm

adding to my earlier comment.... I just reviewed the 120+ page guidelines. I would definitely use it as a resource IF I wanted to maintain my house in the Eichler style. Its nice that the city did this, hopefully it was cheap to produce.

2 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 2, 2018 at 3:23 pm

The guidelines are in consistent. Old Eichler remodels are not allowed to use modern materials or update the appearance (e.g., front door has to be blank, can’t use glass panels). New homes can use any materials and feature current day windows, doors , etc.

Not very smart. The guidelines only make it easier for a property owner to decide to scrape an Eichler and build new.

7 people like this
Posted by NoEiclerFan
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 2, 2018 at 4:26 pm

Eichler was precisely the type of greedy developer contributing to sprawl and destroying the open spaces and orchards that would be anathema today.

5 people like this
Posted by Wrong problem
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 2, 2018 at 4:57 pm

Eichlers are not one size fits all - sometimes windows are on the side of the house rather than the back, many of the lots are differently sized and oriented, and the floorplans also vary more than one might imagine from the outside. These incredibly detailed guidelines appear to have been created to make it easier for staff to approve new homes and additions, which is fine, but they do nothing to resolve the original issue, which is the lack of agreement about whether to build second stories.

I think the city spent money on something that is mostly useful to people who want to restore an Eichler using midcentury materials and that's a pretty small segment of the population, given how many changes we have all made to our houses over the decades.

These guidelines will not abate issues with neighbors and I am strongly opposed to them being anything other than voluntary.

4 people like this
Posted by MD from TOtpgcd
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Mar 2, 2018 at 11:45 pm

Me. Eichler Owner needs to check out the Eichler neighborhoods in Marin County. Standards are in force in these neighborhoods which have greatly improved the homes' appearance and desirability. AC ductwork and solar panels have been installed in the PA neighborhoods because the city code enforcement folks have not done their jobs. Apparently Mr. EO is a fan of sheet rock and painted white tongue and groove ceilings and then criticizes his neighbors and Eichler homes in general for having used cheap materials when built. FYI Mr. EO, all houses that were built 50 years ago are not compliant with today's building codes. Eichler used the best materials available at the time like redwood T & G and mahogany paneling. Suggest doing research on upgrading Eichlers-there is tons of information out there. Especially on the Eichler and Mid Century Modern websites.

2 people like this
Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 3, 2018 at 7:53 am

Create an HOA and keep the city of Palo Alto out of it.

6 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 3, 2018 at 8:56 am

When we were buying our house in the 1980s, the realtor advised against Eichlers because they were ugly and oddly laid out and poorly insulated and often had mediocre build quality. Now days, all that still applies plus they are 30 years older and very small compared to the land value. Can't believe people are trying to put restrictions on the owners of these homes.

6 people like this
Posted by Fairmeadow Dad
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Mar 3, 2018 at 9:07 am

Hmmmmm...these restrictions seem to be far too late to be of any value at this point. There really is only one meaningful restriction that can be put in place on Eichler neighborhoods at this point in time and that would be to limit the height of new/renovated structures.

The variance of styles in almost every neighborhood that is referred to as an Eichler neighborhood makes putting materials and specific style restrictions on the Eichler owners at a minimum unfair and in most cases regulations on materials is outright absurd.

8 people like this
Posted by george drysdale
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 3, 2018 at 11:37 am

You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. All the value of the properties are in the land value. Non-working heating in concrete floors. Great construction. Doze them all they're more valuable as just lots. Sell the lot and go north where there's still water. You don't even have to make that much money to be taxed to death in California. I suggest Washington State where there is no state income tax with many many Californians now. I move around a lot on my job and I can guarantee Palo Alto is not the best place on the west coast. Economics is the forgotten science in California: Check out the Democratic Party platform or San Jose's rent controls on old apartment houses.

6 people like this
Posted by MD from TO
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Mar 3, 2018 at 1:06 pm

Mr. Drysdale and Mr. resident are sadly mis-informed about Eichler Homes. Bashing the layouts which were designed by legendary architects and radiant heating systems that don't function shows that these 2 folks are cherry-picking mis-information relayed by some realtor from the 1980s. Obviously these 2 resident critics prefer the Spanish Hacienda stucco box phenomenon that has migrated to PA from Southern California and is certainly out of character in NorCal. Their posts sound like developers that are aggressively trying to pursue dense-pack and 2-story houses which have ruined many SoCal neighborhoods.

7 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 5, 2018 at 8:17 am

The main complaint from Eichler owners is the loss of privacy when someone builds a two story house which can view through their floor-to-ceiling glass windows. Why not just make a guideline which stops windows on the second floor which view over a neighbors fence instead of a 120 page guideline on everything else? Eichlers were designed to be low cost housing with a modernist flair. Just to get them to code is expensive. Why push a guideline which goes way beyond solving the actual problem?

3 people like this
Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 5, 2018 at 9:21 am

Allen Akin is a registered user.

"Why not just make a guideline which stops windows on the second floor which view over a neighbors fence...?"

This already exists. The Individual Review process, which applies to two-story houses and second-story additions, requires that windows be frosted, blocked, or removed if needed to preserve privacy.

Guidelines of the type being discussed here (we also have them in Professorville) are intended to impose particular opinions about architectural style, not to improve or preserve function.

I think most people are unaware of the two two-story Eichlers in the Professorville district. I suspect they violate both the Professorville and the Eichler neighborhood design guidelines. :-)

7 people like this
Posted by Completed Voluntary
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Mar 5, 2018 at 4:17 pm

The guidelines have to be completely and absolutely voluntary. They cannot be referenced in the Individual Review process as reasons to object to a neighboring house's design.

30 people like this
Posted by Be Real
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Mar 5, 2018 at 4:38 pm

Let's be real, folks.

Most self-proclaimed "Eichler protectors" simply don't want a two-story house next to their home, for privacy reasons. While this personal preference is completely understandable, the simple solution would be to install some curtains in one's own home. When you want nature, open the curtains. When you want privacy, close them. This is much more efficient than trying to force your opinions and conveniences onto others, by telling your neighbors what they can and cannot do to their own home.

For those who still dwell on protecting Eichlers for whatever reason, here is the simple truth. Other people's homes are not yours to "protect", because you don't own them. This is the same logic why others have no say in how you customize or paint your car. Furthermore, houses (including those "special" Eichlers) built in the early 1950's have reached the end of their economic life of 45 years, in the last century (meaning, MORE THAN 20 YEARS AGO). On one hand, no one seems to care about or even recall what was happening in the early 1950's. On the other hand, a certain style of houses built then are somehow sacred, and hence cannot be rebuilt, modified, or otherwise changed to something different. Am I the only one who noticed the contradiction and irony in this reality?!

7 people like this
Posted by Two Stories
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Mar 5, 2018 at 4:41 pm

An Eichler home can be a two-story house. So, it defies logic for someone to object to building two-story houses in the name of "protecting Eichler homes". Just so that we are all clear about this "fine print".

5 people like this
Posted by MD from TO
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Mar 5, 2018 at 4:43 pm

"Low cost housing with a modernist flair"?
How about referencing these houses correctly?
They are Mid Century Modern and not low cost btw. $10,000-13,000 was a large sum of money back in the 1950s-hardly low cost! Also, post-war housing was built in many areas of the country for approx the same price range. You can find accurate info on the Eichler websites.JZp

8 people like this
Posted by MD from TO
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Mar 5, 2018 at 7:00 pm

Some folks here would rather see curtains on windows along with stucco on outside walls in the form of dense pack housing for PA. How about natural light coming in windows and quality paneling installed on outside walls?
Lots of mis-information and lack of knowledge here about Eichler Homes. Accurate information can be found on multiple Eichler websites. These folks want any houses over 40 years old torn down and replaced by ugly Mediterranean/Spanish style McMansions. Sounds like SoCal developer speak promoting dense-pack housing for PA.

13 people like this
Posted by Eicherland
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 6, 2018 at 9:26 am

I agree about the incredible misinformation and misunderstandings noted above. I live in an Eichler that has been in my family for over 50 years, so I can speak from more than a bit of experience. The construction ingredients may have seemed cheap at the time, but I am currently looking at an expanse of pure Redwood in the ceiling that on the outside extends a good eight feet over my back patio. Good luck building that today. The heating system? Lovely heat without dried out blown air. The boiler was replaced once about 15 years ago and I keep in maintained with annual tune ups. Maybe I go lucky, but the house is 60 years old.
These houses do take some attention, but if you want to live in an expanse of light, openness, and style, they are wonderful houses (hey, Europeans ex-pats love them and will tell you that this is their dream of what a California home should look like). The desire not to have Taco Bell inspired two story McMansions in our neighborhood does have something to do with privacy. But it also has something to do with preserving a certain esthetic style, keeping out houses that frankly just don't look right. Take a drive around some of the lovely neighborhoods of Santa Barbara if you want to see how presentation of the architecture of the last century has it advantages.

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