Proposed Teardowns Raise Fears in Palo Alto

A Prairie-themed home would be placed into an existing Eichler neighborhood on Louis Road in Palo Alto. Courtesy of Young and Borlik Architects

A proposal to tear down an Eichler home in a prominent Palo Alto location has outraged and frightened neighbors, and convinced some that protections should be put in place to prevent further losses.

The house, at 3558 Louis Road, is across from the Eichler Swim and Tennis Club, a longtime and recently renovated neighborhood institution that was designed by Eichler’s architects Jones & Emmons.

“The new proposal does not address the community's concerns regarding scale, mass, and privacy and will permanently destroy the peaceful setting of the historical Eichler Swim Club itself,” said neighbor Ami Knoefler, who would like to prevent two-story homes from appearing in the neighborhood and to protect the existing Eichlers.

It’s in the Midtown area of Palo Alto, an area that lacks zoning rules that prevent two-story homes.

Some neighbors, including Knoefler,  have begun looking into creating single-story overlay zones in portions of the Eichler neighborhoods that would prevent two-story homes. Some are looking into historical designation for their neighborhood.

Cat House
A detail of the rendering provides a closer view of the proposed house. Courtesy of Young and Borlik Architects

“For a lot of us in the neighborhood, it’s been a bit of a wakeup call,” said neighbor Lynn Drake, who said there is a separate proposal to tear down another Eichler home a few blocks away and that neighbors there are looking into an overlay, too.

The proposed house on Louis Road, however, meets the city’s requirements for the site, said its architect, Andrew Young of the Palo Alto firm Young and Borlik Architects. He also said its height will be less than allowable under the guidelines.

The home had to be raised 33 inches above grade to meet current federal flood plain requirements, he said, noting that the neighborhood’s current Eichler homes do not meet those requirements.

“The project meets all of the design guidelines, zoning, and codes,” Young has said. “The owners do not want an Eichler, and you cannot build a true Eichler today.”

“I’m not a fan of Eichlers,” said Young, noting their failure to meet present-day seismic, energy, safety, and green building standards.

Young has worked hard to gain acceptance, altering the first proposal, which one neighbor said looked like a Marie Callender’s restaurant. The new proposal shows touches of Prairie style.

“We very much appreciate the willingness of our clients to compromise their initial preferences for their new home,” Young said. He added: “Many of the emails I received from a handful of Eichler homeowners were less than respectful.”

This is the home at 3558 Louis Road that would be demolished. Photo by Dave Weinstein

“Some neighbors said the second plan was an improvement,” Drake said. But not all.

“If your clients did not want an Eichler, why did they buy one?” Knoefler wrote to Young. “That suggests disrespect for the architectural significance and value of the surrounding homes and structures, which are a pristine block of Eichlers, including the Swim Club.”

“It’s more contemporary looking,” Drake said of the latest plan. “But it’s still two stories.

"Neighbors are going to be pretty mad if you put in a second story that peers into their backyard.”

“We were trying to politely get [the buyers] to sell the Eichler and buy another house somewhere else,” Drake said. “But that’s an expensive thing to do.”

It may not be easy to establish legal protections for Eichlers in this portion of Palo Alto. Drake said 70 percent of a neighborhood has to agree before an overlay can be established, and noted that could be hard to achieve in a large area.

On her street, she said, “There are nine Eichlers in a row. Possibly I could get the homeowners to agree. I would need seven of the nine to agree.”

In her 17 years in the neighborhood, she said, teardowns have been rare. “It hasn’t happened so far. I think people really like them and they’re pretty valuable.” She said one house, “in terrible, terrible shape,” was recently sold.

“It was one you’d thought might be bought for the lot. But the people who bought it are redoing it, and as an Eichler. There was a collective sigh of relief from the people on Janice Way.”

Drake’s neighbor, Ben Lerner, supports the idea of an overlay, but noted, “a single-story overlay will prevent a two-story home or addition, but won't guarantee that a one-story home will be built in an Eichler style.”

He’s considering an effort to have the neighborhood named to the National Register of Historic Places – an arduous process but one that has been achieved by two Eichler neighborhoods in town, Greenmeadow and Green Gables.

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