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Citing SB 9 concerns, Palo Alto moves to expand historic registry

Council plans to consider eligibility of more than 150 local properties on National Registry of Historic Places

The home at 446 Forest Ave. is among those that was deemed eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Photo by Gennady Sheyner.

​​​​Citing a desire to protect local landmarks from demolition and redevelopment, the Palo Alto City Council agreed Monday to review dozens of homes for possible inclusion on a historic registry, which would shield them from Senate Bill 9.

By a 6-0 vote, with Tom DuBois absent, the council moved to effectively upend the city's traditional approach to getting homes listed on the local, state or federal registries of historically significant properties — a designation that would exempt them from SB 9, a new state law that allows homeowners to build up to four dwellings on properties where a single home currently stands. To date, it has been up to the property owner to initiate the process of getting their homes listed for the historic registry, with the city acting in a supporting role.

Now, it will be the city leading the charge on getting some of these properties listed, potentially over the homeowners' objections.

The effort will focus on the dozens of properties that the city's consulting firm, Dames & Moore, identified as eligible for designation on the National Register of Historic Places after a citywide survey that it had completed in 2001. Despite this determination, the properties have not actually been listed on the registry and, as such, remain eligible for redevelopment under SB 9.

The city's planning staff had estimated that about 130 of the properties listed in the 2001 survey are single-family homes. As such, they could be subject to demolition if property owners choose to take advantage of the new state law.

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Assistant Planning Director Rachael Tanner said under the new approach, the city would be basically saying to the property owners: "Your property is historic. Would you mind if we list it on the local registry?" There would also be a series of public hearings in which the property owners can voice their support or opposition before the Historic Resources Board, which would make a recommendation on each property and forward it to the council for a final decision.

"There would be a process with public hearings where they can say, 'We don't want it to be (listed). The HRB (Historic Resources Board) could disagree and say, 'We know you don't want it to be, but we still recommend that the council make it on the list,'" Tanner said. "And the council can say, 'Your property is a historic resource.'"

The council's move faced some backlash from residents who framed it as just the latest attempt by the city to defy SB 9, a law that it had publicly and vehemently opposed. Just before the state law took effect on Jan. 1, the city revised its zoning code to add a host of new "objective standards" for SB 9, which govern details such as rooflines, window placements to garage styles.

Economist Stephen Levy suggested that council members' use of the historic registry to prevent redevelopment "certainly does draw attention to their defiant attitude." He alluded to Pasadena's attempt to designate certain areas as "landmark district" to make them ineligible for SB 9. Last week, state Attorney General Rob Bonta notified Pasadena that its ordinance is "illegal and must be repealed."

Levy noted in his letter that the state Department of Housing and Community Development is well aware of Palo Alto's history of opposing SB 9.

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"I hope council does not send yet another signal of defiance about state and regional housing goals," Levy wrote.

The council strongly objected to this argument, with several members pointing out that the historic review would cover only a small fraction of the roughly 14,200 properties throughout Palo Alto that staff believe are eligible for redevelopment under SB 9. City planners and council members argued that the move is necessary to protect historic structures from getting demolished.

The home at 731 Emerson St. is among those that was deemed eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Photo by Gennady Sheyner.

Planning Director Jonathan Lait noted that before SB 9, a developer who wanted to demolish a home that is deemed eligible for a historic listing and replace it with a new two-story home would have to go through the city's "individual review" process, which gives city staff discretion in reviewing the project and requiring environmental analysis. SB 9 allows homeowners to forego the individual review process and build their homes by right.

"SB 9 eliminates that discretion," Lait said. "By it not being listed in local inventory, we no longer have the ability to stop that."

The vast majority of the properties that Dames & Moore deemed eligible for the historic registry are in north Palo Alto neighborhoods that date back to the city's founding, including Crescent Park, Downtown North, Professorville and University South. There are, however, notable exceptions, including a commercial property at 2601 E. Bayshore Road, near the Baylands; four homes on Coleridge Avenue in Old Palo Alto; and a cottage at 643 College Ave., according to the survey.

Greer Stone was one of several council members who observed that SB 9 explicitly allows jurisdictions to exempt historic properties, which is exactly what the council is doing. Rather than defying the law, the council is complying with it, he said.

"I find it pretty ironic that so many detractors tonight and in emails to council are arguing about the importance of us not trying to circumvent Sacramento's mandate on SB9 but have outright ignored that the very same legislators who passed SB 9 also chose to exempt sites with historical significance," Stone said. "You can't have it both ways."

Mayor Pat Burt agreed and said that the properties that are being reviewed for possible inclusion on the historic registry are "culturally significant to our community and are architecturally significant.

"The historic exemptions in SB 9 are not a bug of this law, they are a feature of the law. They were deliberately included," Burt said.

While the council unanimously approved the review, which will unfold over the coming months, council member Alison Cormack said she was somewhat concerned that staff did not publicly release to the council the list of properties under consideration and that many property owners are likely unaware that their homes will likely be subject to public hearings (View the list of properties that the survey reviewed).

This, she said, is significant given that the city will now be able to decide that these homes are historic without the agreement of the property owner.

Others were more enthusiastic in supporting the review. Council member Eric Filseth said expanding the registry of historic properties will restore the "checks and balances" that the city lost when SB 9 became law. He also rejected critics' characterization of the city as defying SB 9, noting that this effort would target fewer than 1% of eligible properties.

"If we're using this to try to overturn SB 9, we picked a pretty ineffective way to do it," Filseth said.

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Gennady Sheyner
 
Gennady Sheyner covers the City Hall beat in Palo Alto as well as regional politics, with a special focus on housing and transportation. Before joining the Palo Alto Weekly/PaloAltoOnline.com in 2008, he covered breaking news and local politics for the Waterbury Republican-American, a daily newspaper in Connecticut. Read more >>

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Citing SB 9 concerns, Palo Alto moves to expand historic registry

Council plans to consider eligibility of more than 150 local properties on National Registry of Historic Places

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Tue, Mar 22, 2022, 12:20 am

​​​​Citing a desire to protect local landmarks from demolition and redevelopment, the Palo Alto City Council agreed Monday to review dozens of homes for possible inclusion on a historic registry, which would shield them from Senate Bill 9.

By a 6-0 vote, with Tom DuBois absent, the council moved to effectively upend the city's traditional approach to getting homes listed on the local, state or federal registries of historically significant properties — a designation that would exempt them from SB 9, a new state law that allows homeowners to build up to four dwellings on properties where a single home currently stands. To date, it has been up to the property owner to initiate the process of getting their homes listed for the historic registry, with the city acting in a supporting role.

Now, it will be the city leading the charge on getting some of these properties listed, potentially over the homeowners' objections.

The effort will focus on the dozens of properties that the city's consulting firm, Dames & Moore, identified as eligible for designation on the National Register of Historic Places after a citywide survey that it had completed in 2001. Despite this determination, the properties have not actually been listed on the registry and, as such, remain eligible for redevelopment under SB 9.

The city's planning staff had estimated that about 130 of the properties listed in the 2001 survey are single-family homes. As such, they could be subject to demolition if property owners choose to take advantage of the new state law.

Assistant Planning Director Rachael Tanner said under the new approach, the city would be basically saying to the property owners: "Your property is historic. Would you mind if we list it on the local registry?" There would also be a series of public hearings in which the property owners can voice their support or opposition before the Historic Resources Board, which would make a recommendation on each property and forward it to the council for a final decision.

"There would be a process with public hearings where they can say, 'We don't want it to be (listed). The HRB (Historic Resources Board) could disagree and say, 'We know you don't want it to be, but we still recommend that the council make it on the list,'" Tanner said. "And the council can say, 'Your property is a historic resource.'"

The council's move faced some backlash from residents who framed it as just the latest attempt by the city to defy SB 9, a law that it had publicly and vehemently opposed. Just before the state law took effect on Jan. 1, the city revised its zoning code to add a host of new "objective standards" for SB 9, which govern details such as rooflines, window placements to garage styles.

Economist Stephen Levy suggested that council members' use of the historic registry to prevent redevelopment "certainly does draw attention to their defiant attitude." He alluded to Pasadena's attempt to designate certain areas as "landmark district" to make them ineligible for SB 9. Last week, state Attorney General Rob Bonta notified Pasadena that its ordinance is "illegal and must be repealed."

Levy noted in his letter that the state Department of Housing and Community Development is well aware of Palo Alto's history of opposing SB 9.

"I hope council does not send yet another signal of defiance about state and regional housing goals," Levy wrote.

The council strongly objected to this argument, with several members pointing out that the historic review would cover only a small fraction of the roughly 14,200 properties throughout Palo Alto that staff believe are eligible for redevelopment under SB 9. City planners and council members argued that the move is necessary to protect historic structures from getting demolished.

Planning Director Jonathan Lait noted that before SB 9, a developer who wanted to demolish a home that is deemed eligible for a historic listing and replace it with a new two-story home would have to go through the city's "individual review" process, which gives city staff discretion in reviewing the project and requiring environmental analysis. SB 9 allows homeowners to forego the individual review process and build their homes by right.

"SB 9 eliminates that discretion," Lait said. "By it not being listed in local inventory, we no longer have the ability to stop that."

The vast majority of the properties that Dames & Moore deemed eligible for the historic registry are in north Palo Alto neighborhoods that date back to the city's founding, including Crescent Park, Downtown North, Professorville and University South. There are, however, notable exceptions, including a commercial property at 2601 E. Bayshore Road, near the Baylands; four homes on Coleridge Avenue in Old Palo Alto; and a cottage at 643 College Ave., according to the survey.

Greer Stone was one of several council members who observed that SB 9 explicitly allows jurisdictions to exempt historic properties, which is exactly what the council is doing. Rather than defying the law, the council is complying with it, he said.

"I find it pretty ironic that so many detractors tonight and in emails to council are arguing about the importance of us not trying to circumvent Sacramento's mandate on SB9 but have outright ignored that the very same legislators who passed SB 9 also chose to exempt sites with historical significance," Stone said. "You can't have it both ways."

Mayor Pat Burt agreed and said that the properties that are being reviewed for possible inclusion on the historic registry are "culturally significant to our community and are architecturally significant.

"The historic exemptions in SB 9 are not a bug of this law, they are a feature of the law. They were deliberately included," Burt said.

While the council unanimously approved the review, which will unfold over the coming months, council member Alison Cormack said she was somewhat concerned that staff did not publicly release to the council the list of properties under consideration and that many property owners are likely unaware that their homes will likely be subject to public hearings (View the list of properties that the survey reviewed).

This, she said, is significant given that the city will now be able to decide that these homes are historic without the agreement of the property owner.

Others were more enthusiastic in supporting the review. Council member Eric Filseth said expanding the registry of historic properties will restore the "checks and balances" that the city lost when SB 9 became law. He also rejected critics' characterization of the city as defying SB 9, noting that this effort would target fewer than 1% of eligible properties.

"If we're using this to try to overturn SB 9, we picked a pretty ineffective way to do it," Filseth said.

Comments

felix
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 22, 2022 at 7:17 am
felix, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Mar 22, 2022 at 7:17 am

Good for those on Council who voted to preserve historic homes. They are part of our town or any towns essence, beauty and personality which is no doubt why they are exempt from SB9.

That some such as Steve Levy argued otherwise reveals a zealotry for mass housing over all else no matter if destructive to Palo Alto. I’m reminded of something once said - “We had to destroy the village to save it”.





Annette
Registered user
College Terrace
on Mar 22, 2022 at 7:20 am
Annette, College Terrace
Registered user
on Mar 22, 2022 at 7:20 am

I agree with Felix. This passed unanimously. This is not defiance; this is a City Council comprised of people with disparate perspectives on issues - including housing - acting to find a way to preserve the architectural tapestry of this city. We need this. As Pat Burt said, these properties are "culturally significant to our community and are architecturally significant". And as Greer Stone said, SB9 itself provides for this. Plus, the numbers are low. To qualify as an act of defiance we'd need to be talking about a far greater number of properties.


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 22, 2022 at 8:20 am
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Mar 22, 2022 at 8:20 am

SB9 has the potential for converting certain single family homes into future slums.

One of the recent tiny home developments has had a few of the tiny homes destroyed by fire. Although the cause has not been given, it is evident that the fire started inside one of the tiny homes and there has been a plea issued to the residents to not store too many belongings inside the homes as the destroyed units were filled with too much stuff. This shows what many fear.

When people are crammed in close together it is much harder for them to take a pride in their surroundings. There is an inclination to turn what may be nice new surroundings into neglected or overstuffed spaces. Is this what any of us in the adjoining lot to our family home?

SB9 has good intentions, but the reality is that it will end up turning neighborhoods into the lowest desirable place to live.


Eric Filseth
Registered user
Downtown North
on Mar 22, 2022 at 9:41 am
Eric Filseth, Downtown North
Registered user
on Mar 22, 2022 at 9:41 am

In the end SB9 may turn out simply to be dumb – paperwork for cities, perks for a few rich people, and no impact on housing prices – but it’s the law of the land. The State Auditor may have blasted the RHNA “vacancy rate” and “household formation” calculations (exactly what the Embarcadero Institute said, as it happens), but it’s the law of the land. The Council gave its input on these things exactly per process; at this point they’re done, and those opposed need to take it up with their state assembly and senate reps.

The current council is over half MBA’s and former CEO’s: it’s pragmatic, not fanatical.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 22, 2022 at 10:30 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Mar 22, 2022 at 10:30 am

Thank you, City Council, and shame on Levy who can't see the beauty of Pasadena's historic district. Maybe he could take his rich backers and try to defeat all spending by the State Tourism Commissions.

The transparency of those opposing historic preservation bears the same absurdity as those refusing to recognize fire and drought as real dangers.

Also, what are people like Levy doing to prevent the spread of homelessness by requiring his reach backers to support decent pay for gig workers and a real business tax so THEY can pay their fair share??


stephen levy
Registered user
University South
on Mar 22, 2022 at 10:33 am
stephen levy, University South
Registered user
on Mar 22, 2022 at 10:33 am

Owners of historic homes already have the right to register their properties and make them ineligible for SB9 conversion,

I support their right to do so.

I do not support the city having the power as the article points out to list the property as historic even if the property owner does not wish this.

That is clearly an attempt even though the numbers are small to avoid complying with state law on SB9.

The Palo Alto council has every right to oppose state legislation but opposition does not confer the right to circumvent or subvert the law and taking away the rights of homeowners for the express purpose of circumventing state law is a dangerous precedent in my opinion and likely to have legal consequences.


Outside Observer
Registered user
Professorville
on Mar 22, 2022 at 10:35 am
Outside Observer, Professorville
Registered user
on Mar 22, 2022 at 10:35 am

One word of warning for everyone planning to race out and add their home to the historical registry. Keep in mind that once your home is on the registry, virtually any modification inside or out must be approved by the city (BOTH the Architectural Review Board AND the Historic Resources Board) and must be in keeping with the "historic" nature of the house. Planning to add AC? Thinking about replacing that gas stove and oven with something new and electric? Want to replace your rotting wooden siding with something similar but made of composite materials? Simply planning to add an additional bathroom within your existing space? Thought you could add solar panels? Sorry, at the very least you're now going to have to go through the full "Palo Alto process" for even the simplest changes. And your project stands a much, much greater chance of simply being turned down as "inconsistent" with the now "historic" nature of your house. Remember - one you're on the registry, it's no longer just "your" house. It's now a "piece of history" to be preserved and protected by the government. Have fun! (Been there, done that.) :(


anon
Registered user
College Terrace
on Mar 22, 2022 at 10:42 am
anon, College Terrace
Registered user
on Mar 22, 2022 at 10:42 am

In response to the comments made by Outside Observer;
The staff made it abundantly clear last night that registering your house as historic does not involve the interior, only the exterior ...nor does it prevent one from adding solar panels,
air-conditioning or upgraded appliances! So NOPE its just the exterior that is affected, and even that can be changed and/or updated materials used if it appears to be in keeping with the original!


Allan
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Mar 22, 2022 at 11:14 am
Allan, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Mar 22, 2022 at 11:14 am

Real estate experts - how does being listed as a historic home affect market value of the historic home, if at all? Tax advantages or disadvantages for owner and/or county?


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 22, 2022 at 11:40 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Mar 22, 2022 at 11:40 am

@Allan, it may reduce the selling price since it reduces the pool of buyers by eliminating the increasing number of investors, flippers and speculators looking for a quick buck rather than a home.

Do follow the numbers on the rising numbers of home purchasers bought by speculators and flippers, now at 20% and still rising.


Mayfield Forever
Registered user
Midtown
on Mar 22, 2022 at 11:56 am
Mayfield Forever, Midtown
Registered user
on Mar 22, 2022 at 11:56 am

Anon - that is bullshit. We're 9 months into permit hell with Palo Alto on what we expected to be a small interior remodel of a historical property with some upgrades to the home's electrical system + solar and they have had opinions about *everything* including solar panel placement. The like for like thing is also a lie. They "prefer" you keep historical materials, even if it's an accurate reproduction. That means you get to keep your rotting siding, doors, fences, leaky windows, etc.

The second you get put on the historic registry, every change, including interiors, gets extra scrutiny and that means paying tons of money to Page & Turnbull and all their other "consultants," plus endless back and forth conversations with the city. Full electrification is almost impossible, because making your Title 24 calculations balance out requires significant investments in sealing the envelope of the house (requires changing windows and doors, often not approved by historical) and introducing modern insulation (expensive, impossible in many older homes due to wall and ceiling construction) and upgrading your panel and electrical (get ready for months of back and forth with Palo Alto Utilities.) Say goodbye to your heat pump and induction dreams. Many contractors won't work on a historic property in Palo Alto simply because of the overwhelming bureaucracy that gets introduced into your projects. I would give anything to be off the registry, but alas, in Hotel California....

Congrats to all the new members of the Palo Alto Historical Review Board fan club!

P.S. There are no tax breaks for Palo Alto historical properties. You should plan on 2-3x every project estimate you receive from now on.


Paly02
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Mar 22, 2022 at 5:15 pm
Paly02, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Mar 22, 2022 at 5:15 pm

"The current council is over half MBA’s and former CEO’s"

And? City government shouldn't be run as a business, that would be unethical


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 22, 2022 at 6:25 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Mar 22, 2022 at 6:25 pm

Or it could just be irrational, mendacious, blind and amoral like past councils and mayor who claimed we didn't have ANY traffic problems so huge office development could continue at a horrendous pace to benefit their deep-pocketed backers.

And, odd, this same mayor who's out of power and who's been investigated for campaign finance irregularities NOW wants to restrict residential contributions but not -- heaven's no!! -- contributions from those deep-pocketed businesses, lobbyists and developers.

Don't know why your comment about "unethical" reminded me.


Paly02
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Mar 22, 2022 at 8:34 pm
Paly02, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Mar 22, 2022 at 8:34 pm

Online Name, I think you are trying to respond to me - only I just made the point that MBAs and CEOs aren't as useful of credentials for city gov't as Councilmember Filseth seems to think. And your comment doesn't respond to the substance of that at all....


Jerry Underdal
Registered user
Barron Park
on Mar 23, 2022 at 1:56 am
Jerry Underdal, Barron Park
Registered user
on Mar 23, 2022 at 1:56 am

I agree with Eric Filseth when he says that this would be an ineffective way to fend off the perceived negative features of SB9. I’m all for it if more property owners protect their historically significant homes from being scraped and replaced by much larger single family units. Voluntarily limiting their flexibility to manage their property as they see fit and reducing their likely eventual capital gains when they sell, all for the sake of maintaining Palo Alto’s architectural legacy, should be applauded as a noble act. But it should not be compelled.

I don’t see where Palo Alto’s housing allocation would be reduced. The city may have a marginally greater challenge to meet its housing targets if significant numbers of single family home owners shield their properties from greater density. That’s a worthy challenge for our fair city.


[email protected]
Registered user
Palo Alto Hills
on Mar 23, 2022 at 2:41 pm
[email protected], Palo Alto Hills
Registered user
on Mar 23, 2022 at 2:41 pm

A prop 13 repeal will fix a lot of this nonsense and eventually lead to housing abundance.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 23, 2022 at 4:16 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Mar 23, 2022 at 4:16 pm

A prop 13 appeal only makes sense if it considers commercial properties since businesses "live" longer than homeowners, are usually much wealthier with more valuable properties and are often the landlords / developers for renting, building and/or selling housing. See also Willie Sutton's answer to why he robbed banks.


attaboy
Registered user
Midtown
on Mar 24, 2022 at 11:43 am
attaboy, Midtown
Registered user
on Mar 24, 2022 at 11:43 am

Would you want to buy a house that is on the registry? Or would you rather buy the same house that is not on the registry?

If your house is so designated, what does that do to your property’s value? Would you be happy about that?


Allen Akin
Registered user
Professorville
on Mar 24, 2022 at 1:37 pm
Allen Akin, Professorville
Registered user
on Mar 24, 2022 at 1:37 pm

@attaboy: Years ago I was on the Professorville Design Guidelines Committee, and we spent some effort looking at the question of property values in historic districts.

In general, designating something "historic" reduces its market value, because the restrictions on its use decrease the number of people who are willing to buy it, and limit the ability to adapt to changes in the surrounding environment.

However, if it has some desirable characteristic that's not readily available nearby (for example, it's a single-family home in an area which otherwise doesn't permit that, or it's larger than current rules allow, or it carries a tax benefit, etc.), the market value rises because that characteristic is protected.

In short, there's no simple answer, and the tradeoffs can change over time.


Jim
Registered user
Southgate
on Mar 27, 2022 at 4:34 pm
Jim, Southgate
Registered user
on Mar 27, 2022 at 4:34 pm

Can't seem to connect to the list with the information given:
tinyurl.com/PAhistoriclist22


Jane
Registered user
Midtown
on Mar 28, 2022 at 10:36 am
Jane, Midtown
Registered user
on Mar 28, 2022 at 10:36 am

We love historic buildings, but if you're in the owner's shoes, do you love it? More limits,more expenses and less value. the owner do the sacrifice, who pay for it? Property Tax Benefit should be used for the historic properties!


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