Monster Home Spurs Action in Sunnyvale

The home on the right will be replaced by a much larger home, though still in the modern style. The project may go forward -- but it set into motion a quest that may end such threats in the future, at least in this immediate neighborhood. Photos by Dave Weinstein

An Eichler neighborhood in Sunnyvale is seeking protection from two-story homes through a zoning overlay – even though the neighbors’ likely success would come too late to stop the 'monster' home that provoked them to act.

“It’s really like a monster house in an Eichler neighborhood,” says John Sullivan, one of a handful of neighbors who are leading the charge to create what Sunnyvale calls a “single-story combining district” to block future two-story additions or two-story homes.

“They were trying for something that was thoughtfully modern,” he says of the owners and of the architect, whose designs are in a modern idiom, “but it doesn’t look anything like an Eichler, and it’s 3,600 square feet, a two-story home with a basement.”

A drawing of the proposed two-story replacement home shows how the original plan, which has since been modified by the architect, would have affected privacy in the home of John and Michelle Sullivan. Courtesy of John Sullivan

Like Palo Alto, Sunnyvale has seen a number of proposed teardowns and out-of-scale additions in its Eichler neighborhoods in recent years. As in Palo Alto, in Sunnyvale neighbors are organizing to preserve their neighborhoods’ character.

In Sunnyvale, though the fight is more block by block, versus entire neighborhood by entire neighborhood in Palo Alto, because the overlay application fee of about $143 per house makes it easier and more cost effective for a few blocks to apply, rather than an entire neighborhood.

Palo Alto, which has a similar fee on its books, has waived it for single-story overlay applications.

“We had thought about [seeking an overlay zone] for all Fairbrae Addition,” Sullivan said, “but that’s close to 200 homes. It would have taken us a year to collect signatures, and we would have had to put up $30,000.”

Homes in the neighborhood, a portion of Fairbrae Addition, were built in 1958 and 1959 and remain relatively intact.

The organizers of the overlay committee put up the $6,000 city fee themselves, and are collecting contributions from their neighbors.

The matter arose in December in Sullivan's neighborhood, called the 'Fairbrae Addition,' when the new owners of an Eichler on Sesame Drive “let neighbors know they were interested in tearing it down and building a new two-story house. We were concerned about it at the time,” Sullivan says.

“There were some additions to the neighborhood a few years ago,” says Erik Petersen, who has lived in the Fairbrae Addition for 19 years, but not in the section that would be protected by the proposed zoning change. “But this is the first new build built here, the first monster home.”

“It’s a neat design,” Petersen said of the proposed new home, “but not just plopped in this neighborhood. People paid $2 million for this house, and they’re going to bulldoze it.”

Petersen says the size of the proposed home is a problem. “This new house is a cargo ship and the rest of the houses are rowboats,” he adds.

Sullivan’s home is adjacent to the proposed new home. “Of particular concern to us was the second story has a roof deck and large windows, all of which look directly into our yard and the yards of our neighbors,” he says.

Some neighbors backed the plan for the new home, some after meeting with the owners and the architect. The owners agreed early on to make several changes involving window placement and trees to safeguard some of their neighbors’ privacy.

A view down Sesame Drive reveals that the homes all share a certain scale, on that will be disrupted by the new home.

“We support the project going forward," one neighborhood resident wrote, “and feel that not only is it being done with sensitivity to all the neighbors, but that it will also help increase the overall value of the properties on our street.”

Other neighbors fought the plan for the home, and won some concessions – including some changes to the deck (a trellis will be added), and windows, that will preserve privacy.

Planning staff approved the plan with modifications. Neighbors plan to appeal to the Planning Commission, Sullivan says. They have argued that city staff did not adhere to the city’s Eichler Design Guidelines.

“We can’t really stop the house from being built as a two story,” he says. “But we hope we can have the city respect the Eichler design guidelines.”

“In parallel with this,” Sullivan says, “many of the neighbors were getting together and talking.” They decided to seek overlay zoning, “even if that couldn’t stop the house on Sesame.

“The process has been so unpleasant, we don’t want it ever to happen again,” he adds.

This Eichler with a second-story addition is near the area that may receive a single-story overlay, but not within it.

It helped that a nearby Eichler neighborhood was already looking into similar zoning. Folks from Fairbrae, including Sullivan, attended a community meeting in the Dartshire-Devonshire neighborhood put on by city planning staff and learned much.

Earlier this month, the City Council gave final, unanimous approval to the overlay zone at Dartshire-Devonshire.

Although there are several homes with second-story additions in Fairbrae Addition, the blocks seeking the zoning change only has one other second-story addition, completed about two years ago. “That was also the source of a lot of frustration to neighbors,” and was “another catalyst” for the zone change, Sullivan says.

Several neighbors, including John and his wife Michelle, Don Buck, and Joe Ragey, formed a committee in March and began gathering signatures in support of the zoning change.

They won support through the personal touch. "We knocked on every door, says Michelle Sullivan, meaning herself, Don and Joe. "We also had help from another six neighbors to reach out to those we didn't personally know."

An attractive Eichler home on Sesame Drive is overshadowed by a shade tree.

They won support from 39 of the 45 houses on Torrington and Sesame drives, Vanderbilt and Hollenbeck avenues, and on several small courts.

That’s 86.6 percent support, Sullivan says, “the highest [level of support] we have heard of.” That bodes well, he says. “We don’t anticipate any challenges getting it done. It just takes time.”

By seeking an overlay district, Sullivan says, neighbors are sending “a very strong statement to the city that Eichler owners want the city to enforce privacy issues and protect the integrity of the neighborhoods."

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