Eichler Teardown OK’d in Fairmeadow

This simple Eichler home on Redwood Circle will be replaced with a two-story home, joining many other such remodels in a section of Fairmeadow that continues to lose its original character. Neighborhood photos by Dave Weinstein

What does it look like when a neighborhood of Eichler homes gives up? When an owner proposes to tear down a perfectly sound, single-story Eichler to replace it with a two-story home that looks nothing like an Eichler?

It looks like what just happened in Fairmeadow, a unique and early Eichler development that can be easily identified from the air or from maps because homes are arrayed on a series of intersecting circular streets.

(The plan was so unique that Fortune magazine ran an aerial image of Fairmeadow on the cover of its 25th anniversary issue, February 1955.)

Last month Palo Alto approved the first teardown of an Eichler since adopting voluntary Eichler design guidelines last year. The only real complaints from immediate neighbors dealt not with protecting the neighborhood from a two-story home, but from one family next door to the project concerned about protecting  privacy.

A visit to the project site, at 3743 Redwood Circle, suggests why no overall neighborhood brouhaha developed. Neighbors seem to believe the tract’s character – or at least its character in this part of the tract – has already been too compromised to preserve.

The city planning office's staff report shows what the new home will look like. The design is far more modern than the first, traditional plan.

This could be an example of the domino effect often seen in Eichler and other mid-century modern tracts. First, one two-story home appears, then another, and another. At some point, the argument that future such homes don’t belong there no longer seems compelling.

In the case of 3743 Redwood Circle, its immediate neighbors to either side are already two stories, and other two-story former Eichlers stand across the street.

Interestingly, though, if you walk the length of Redwood Circle (well, it’s more a circle than a length), you’ll notice that the other half of the circle is much more intact.

The original 284 Eichler homes of  Fairmeadow are more prone to unwelcome change than some later Eichlers, because they are early (building began in 1952) and therefore generally smaller and simpler than most later Eichlers.

Amy French, Palo Alto’s chief planning official, who helped shepherd the Eichler guidelines into being, said they did not affect the Redwood Circle proposal because it was initiated in 2017, before guideline adoption.

The staff report also shows the context for the project, and an image of the circles that characterize this unique tract.

The guidelines may not have mattered anyway, since they are voluntary, and do not impose design standards.

French said that since adoption of the guidelines, they have not otherwise been called into play. Also, she said, even though the guidelines allow neighborhoods to petition the city to create mandatory standards for their neighborhoods, so far no one has done that.

“Nobody has come forward requesting Eichler Guidelines use as enforceable,” she said in an email.

The story on Redwood Circle began in July 2017 when the family that owns number 3743 came in with a replacement design that upset the owners of the house behind their home.

They did not seek to block the Eichler demolition, but merely to reconfigure the plan to safeguard privacy. The couple who were opposing the plan live in an Eichler that has gotten a second-story addition itself.

This two-story home borders the project site. Once the new home is built, there will be three two-story homes in a row.

Planning staff recommended approval because the project met zoning codes for the neighborhood. After a redesign to address the privacy concerns, the neighbors continued to object, citing potential loss of privacy and of sunlight.

The applicants argued their case to the city in these words, among others: “Our humble dream in your hands. Please allow us to build our modest house, and have a dry Thanksgiving in 2019.”

The City Council approved the teardown and replacement this January.

In an email to Eichler Network, Amy French discussed the process:

“The project started off with stucco and tile roof and ended up Eichler-like after two plan revisions. It was approved May 2018 without involving Eichler Guidelines in review. 

“When it was appealed, the focus was on the privacy concern from the rear neighbor (who also has a two-story home), so the final director decision focus was to improve privacy. That decision was appealed. The owner offered translucent glass on all rear elevation second-floor windows, in order to get Council to approve the project, which they did.”

Many of the homes in Fairmeadow Circles remain single story and well preserved. At times, the two-story homes are clustered.

“I don’t know of any other proposals in an Eichler tract in Palo Alto submitted after adoption of the guidelines,” French wrote. “It’s only a matter of time.”

Eleven years ago some residents of Fairmeadow tried to get ahead of the game by seeking overlay zoning to ban second stores in a portion of their tract. The effort died, in part because backers did not get enough support from the entire neighborhood.

The effort began, according to resident Bruce Nolen, who discussed it with Eichler Network in 2009, when there was fear of a teardown. The initial plan was limited to about 120 homes, and the ‘Fairmeadow Action Committee” had buy-in from at least 74.

But Nolen said city planners said the overlay should cover the entire neighborhood. “It’s much more difficult of a task to get people in whole area to agree,” Nolen said.

The city sent a survey to Fairmeadow residents in 2009 to gauge support for banning two stories. Anne Knight, speaking in early 2010, when the effort was still underway, told Eichler Network that “the results of the survey were disappointing.”

She concluded it was a mistake to seek an overlay for the entire neighborhood, writing in the fall of 2010: “The [Palo Alto Planning and Transportation] committee's failure, in my view, was its refusal to consider our petition, which was for a limited section of our neighborhood.”

Today, Knight says, she believes, “context is key.” New two-story homes are a concern, she writes, if they ruin views and hurt privacy. “This neighborhood conferred a promise of backyard privacy, and  the city should honor that promise.”

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