Should Palo Alto Adopt “Eichler Zones?”

Palo Alto is devising rules to preserve its Eichler neighborhoods, which total about 2,700 homes including this one in Fairmeadow. Photo by Dave Weinstein

How would you like to live your life in an 'Eichler Zone'? Would it be like living in historic Colonial Williamsburg, except instead of wearing tri-corner hats and shoeing horses, you’d be wearing 1950s fedoras and polishing your Chevrolet Bel Air?

Or would it simply be a place where you could rest assured that your home and your neighboring homes would retain their architectural character, and where would be preserved a 'sense of unity in your community'?

Over the next few months, city planners in Palo Alto, working with Eichler homeowners and with the architectural firm Page & Turnbull, will complete a process that will determine just exactly what folks in that most Eichler of all cities want their Eichler zones to be.

Ruth Todd, with the architectural firm Page & Turnbull, led a group of Eichler owners through a workshop to delve into their opinions about potential design guidelines. Event photos from meeting video courtesy of city of Palo Alto

“The overwhelming message is you want a sense of unity in your neighborhood,” Page & Turnbull principal Ruth Todd told an overflow crowd of Eichler owners at a community meeting, after hearing from people there, both verbally and through an exercise involving post-its.

“I think there is a good bit of consistency of opinion that’s been expressed tonight,” she said, adding, “hopefully that’s going to make our task easier, but of course this is only community meeting number one, so we’ll see.”

That community meeting, the first, was in April. Page & Turnbull has been working since then to come up with ideas for community guidelines that would protect the 2,700 or so Eichlers that exist in Palo Alto in what the firm has counted up as 31 distinct neighborhoods.

(These range from well-known names like Greenmeadow and Los Arboles to 'No Name (Middlefield Road.')

The room had 60 seats for the audience, not nearly enough, one participants complained. It was standing room only. More meetings are upcoming.

The goal is to create a predictable, easily managed way to ensure that people who live in Eichler neighborhoods are safe from such things as second-story additions overlooking their backyards – if they want to be.

One city document states the goal would include “assist(ing) the community to determine whether or not to establish 'Eichler Zones,' where specific standards would apply in lieu of or in addition to the existing individual review guidelines” that are currently used to determine whether the city should approve two-story homes in the midst of single-story mid-century modern neighbors.

The effort follows many months when neighbors sought (and sometimes received) special neighborhood-by-neighborhood protection as single-story overlay zones. The City Council decided in mid-2016 to take a citywide look at the problem instead.

Sometime this summer expect to see neighborhood tours in Palo Alto and what the city promises will be “other outreach activities.”

A page from Page & Turnbull's report shows the design for the circular planned Fairmeadow subdivision.

Draft guidelines from Page & Turnbull will be available for neighborhood review by August, a city timeline says, followed by another community workshop at a date to be determined in September.

That will be followed by an “informational hearing and presentation” to the city’s Historic Resource Board, with an October hearing before the Planning and Transportation Commission. In December the issue would go before the City Council, with adoption projected for January 2018.

Even after the first meeting, Ruth Todd was getting an idea about what the Eichler community would like to see in guidelines. People posted comments on boards that showed photos of Eichlers revealing various degrees of renovation.

“If you like second-story additions at all, you like them small and discrete,” she told the crowd. “That’s my first impression of just a very quick glance, here.”

“You appreciate privacy and openness, and you appreciate the clean modernist approach in terms of design features. It’s open minded of you to embrace kind of neo-modernist approaches, especially to infill neighborhoods,” she said.

The report includes much historical information about Eichler homes and delves into their appeal.

Todd said she found “overwhelming support for strong guidelines,” while going on to say, “There were three opposite opinions, but in general you are open to regulation.”

She noted that some participants wanted guidelines that were specific, focusing on details of siding and the like, whereas others preferred more general guidelines.

As for creating guidelines that would be as specific as for National Regsiter districts, Todd summarized the mood: “Maybe, maybe not.”

Palo Alto already has two neighborhoods on the National Register, Greenmeadow and Green Gables.

Once guidelines are in place, city documents state, they will “provide a design tool for homeowners and architects” and can serves as a “reference for Palo Alto review bodies.”

To get updates when the city adds information to its website on Eichler guidelines, ask that you be added to the email list by contacting [email protected].

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