Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
A zoning change in a “historic” neighborhood disguises politics as preservation.
With housing in extraordinarily high demand and at a very low supply, Palo Alto has recently topped lists of U.S. cities with the highest median rent in the country. And yet on Monday, city council members unanimously approved a request permitting the Los Arboles neighborhood (where median household income is about three times the national average) to adopt a “single-story overlay” zone, banning new two-story homes or second-story additions.
The logic behind the restriction is… confusing. Many homes in Los Arboles were originally developed by Joseph Eichler, the famed developer who brought clean lines, airy spaces, and Modernist style to middle-class housing tracts all over post-War California. Some residents who led early petitions to create the single-story overlay say the ban intends to preserve that style.
But there are still thousands of original Eichlers throughout California. And, in terms of its historic purity, Los Arboles is already a mix of originals and newer constructions. Also, Eichler homes are hardly all one-story—he developed plenty of two-story homes, and high-rises, to boot—so it’s really not correct to call one type of residence his “style.”
What’s more, the zone change will not prevent residents from tearing down their homes and building in whatever style they prefer. Make it a Rancho, Victorian, or a Big Box house: So long as the construction has just one story, you’re fine.
Officials say that the Los Arboles zone change is not really about aesthetics, but about protecting residents from neighbors whose second-story additions might interfere with their domestic lives. "Tonight's action is about privacy," City Councilmember Tom DuBois said at the decisive hearing. "It doesn't mandate design in any way."
Privacy may be a legitimate concern in residential areas, but (as a website maintained by residents opposed to the zone change notes) the City of Palo Alto already has mechanisms in place to address such concerns when new two-story homes and additions arrive on the block. If privacy were truly the priority, then why not seek to expand those mechanisms, instead?
Maybe the single-story overlay isn’t really about privacy or design. Maybe it’s about preserving the size of the neighborhood at all costs. A single-story overlay sends a loud, clear message to people on the wrong side of the Bay Area’s housing crisis: Amid Dickensian inequality, residents seem to be unwilling to consider what accommodating more humans would look like. No, there won’t be two-story homes here, let alone multi-story, multi-family housing. “Historic” Los Arboles doesn’t have room for that.
It’s particularly ironic, because Eichler was famous for having a sense of social responsibility as strong as his sense of design. He aimed (and often succeeded) in building tracts and neighborhoods that were affordable and diverse. And, yet Palo Alto Online reports that Los Arboles’ single-story overlay change is likely to be first among many across the city’s other Eichler tracts. What housing shortage?
At the meeting Monday, Palo Alto Mayor Karen Holman contemplated how real-estate agents will interpret this restriction to future development. Mercury News reports:
"Some will say, well, you've just devalued your property," Holman said. "Others will say that people like to buy into a neighborhood where they know what the future is," she continued, "and that's what you're providing for the neighborhood with the approval of this overlay."