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Menlo Park: Home design doesn't fit neighborhood, commission decides

Original post made on Jan 22, 2014

The architect of a two-story 3,000-square-foot Mediterranean-style home on Middle Avenue was sent back to the drawing board by Menlo Park's Planning Commission, despite the fact that the proposed stucco and tile-roofed home did not violate any city rules and no one had complained about it.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Wednesday, January 22, 2014, 10:21 AM

Comments (22)

Posted by Robert Cronin, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jan 22, 2014 at 10:52 pm

When I moved to Menlo Park in 1976, there were no two-story houses on my street. Now there are quite a few, most of them completely new, not second-story additions. The world has not ended, although it seems to me that the builders/owners have constructed designs that do a pretty good job of blending in with the existing bungalows.

Posted by Julie, a resident of another community
on Jan 22, 2014 at 11:15 pm

Re: But Commissioner Ferrick said that because the city has no architectural control guidelines, "I just don't think there's a basis to deny this."

If the structural design and the placement on the lot are not violating any building code or zoning laws, the Commission has no legal authority to deny the construction.

The Commission is not a "Homeowners' Association" with collective binding laws . The house and property are not bound by any laws that do not already exist for other homes on that street.

Do the owners need a variance from the city to proceed---because they are outside of some necessary building requirements? If not, there should be no valid reason for denying them a permit or for stopping their plans to build.

Editor's note: Correction: The applicant was before the commission because he needed a use permit since the lot is only 50 feet wide in a zone that requires 65 feet.

Posted by Not really, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 23, 2014 at 5:33 am

While, often (but not always!), the homes are nicely done, the problem is that they are typically enormous and as they become the norm the character of a street/neighborhood/town does and will change. Look at Bay Laurel, where it one over-sized house after another is being built, often way out of proper scale. Very little uniformity in style too. Owners don't care about character of the street, just their own house, since it is their investment. We should assume that every home, over time, will go this route since the money exists to do so, thus fully changing the character of that great street. Another irony is that these homes tend to cause families to stay inside, rather than to mingle outside, so you wind up with a lot of house taking up a streets scape, but less "life" on the streets.

Completely separate from what is allowed by Planning commish, this seems to be an issue to be addressed by the city in a way that better balances homeowner rights and the character of Menlo Park.

Posted by structural change, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 23, 2014 at 11:14 am

The Planning Commission acted appropriately, upholding their legal responsibility to the community. There are a few elephant-in-the-room issues here.

* The city's professed commitment to affordable housing. It's not just about cramming a lot of new high-density units but about preserving the bungalows and smaller homes. Tiny units on the train tracks should not be the only affordable option.

* Inconsistency of standards. Why should houses on substandard lots be subject to more scrutiny than those on larger lots? Answer: they shouldn't be. Any time someone wants to scrape a house or remodel extensively, there should be a review process. Whatever triggers that process, it should be the same for all.

* Design standards. It isn't too late for the city to create an architectural review board to complement the legally-mandated Planning Commission.

The above are beyond the PC's purview; the city needs a policy addressing them. Given the rate that our city is growing, it's overdue. Meanwhile, I appreciate the Planning Commission trying to fill those gaps.

Posted by POGO, a resident of Woodside: other
on Jan 23, 2014 at 12:37 pm

For those of you who would complaint about the design or size of this home, perhaps at one time YOUR home was the target of similar derision when it was being built.

Things change.

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jan 23, 2014 at 1:50 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"* Design standards. It isn't too late for the city to create an architectural review board to complement the legally-mandated Planning Commission. "

Even Palo Alto, which has an Architectural Review Board, has enough sense not to require architectural review for single family homes and duplexes - to include them would result in madness.

"Single-family residences and duplexes are excluded from the architectural review process."

Posted by Go Away, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 23, 2014 at 3:01 pm

Tired of people who come into town to build monstrous big homes that do not fit into the character of the existing neighborhood and who have no plans to actually reside in the home. Go away!

Posted by Former MP Resident, a resident of Portola Valley: other
on Jan 23, 2014 at 5:18 pm

We reluctantly left Menlo Park after finally receiving a variance to add to our modest house on a narrow, but deep lot on Middle Ave. We wished to add only what we needed to expand our 2/1 house from 1200 to 1800 square feet to accommodate our growing family and remain part of the MP community.

In our experience, neither the planning staff nor Planning Commission had any sensitivity to the costs and emotional toll their long and unpredictable process imposed on us. As one commentator alludes to above, there should be rules which are clear and predictable for properties -- large or small -- in MP.

It also struck me that the PC seemed unphased by the fact that no one had complained. If there is even a hint of a problem (real or imagined), someone in MP invariably complains!

Finally, measuring what should be allowed in a neighborhood, against what is there already has always seemed strange to me. It presumes that what happens to be there already is the best. And those wishing to build and improve are often put through an arduous process while those who choose to let their properties fall into disrepair (or worse) are left alone.

Posted by POGO, a resident of Woodside: other
on Jan 23, 2014 at 7:48 pm

Former MP Resident -

Nicely said.

If maintaining the neighborhood were the true objective, Menlo Park (and most of our cities and towns) would be a few hundred tiny clapboard houses with two bedrooms, a porch, a wood burning fireplace and an outhouse.

The real objective is sadly transparent - to stop admission to the party once they've arrived.

Posted by Menlo Voter, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 23, 2014 at 7:48 pm

Menlo Voter is a registered user.

two bedroom bungalow is what's already there? By all means lets make sure this growing CITY doesn't allow for progress or the enlargement of homes! No one lives in bungalows any more nor does anyone buy them to live in them. This isn't the 20's or 30's when they were built. The world changes so does Menlo Park. PC: quit screwing the people that wish to take advantage of the change.

Posted by Julie, a resident of another community
on Jan 24, 2014 at 11:02 am

From Barbara Wood's article:

"...the proposed stucco and tile-roofed home did not violate any city rules and no one had complained about it."

If no one has complained about it, just which "people of Menlo Park" is the Commisioner referring to in the statement below, (also from the Artcle)??

"But Commissioner Ben Eiref, who had said the proposed home "is going to stick out like a sore thumb," insisted the commission was just doing its job."

"I'm really siding with the people of Menlo Park and the neighborhood," he said.

Again, I ask, what people of Menlo Park? And what "people of the neighborhood"? (when no one has complained).

Posted by John Kadvany, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 24, 2014 at 1:10 pm

The Planning Commission did not deny the project. As with many other projects, the PC recommended some design changes to make the house fit in better with the neighborhood, based on our collective experience with maximum size projects, especially those 'first on the block'. Formally, the project was 'continued'. The PC has done this many times, always leading successfully to an improved project when brought back for review. In the case of very large, 'maxed-out' designs, this is a critical role for the PC. In most or all cases, revised projects also get fast-tracked back for reconsideration, and likely approval, once changes are complete. As far as neighbor approval goes, that's not as easy as it sounds. The PC has had cases where neighbors actually didn't like what was being proposed, but were uncomfortable having to tell that to a neighbor who didn't really care. Other neighbors may not appreciate what houses designed on paper look like when built out, and are not always pleased to see a bulky, awkwardly-designed house go up using cheap materials. Alternatively, the PC has worked with neighbors to help make a new large house fit on the street, by selective choice of materials, window placement, privacy concerns, screening and landscaping, etc. You also just cannot put that all such considerations, with built-in answers, into our building code, it's too variable and context-dependent.
John Kadvany / Planning Commission Chair

Posted by Former MP Resident, a resident of Portola Valley: other
on Jan 24, 2014 at 5:15 pm

While appreciating the PC Chair's comment of explanation,above,it is hard to square this with the statement in the article that "Commissioners expressed frustration at the city's lack of design guidelines that might help avoid similar situations." If that is the core concern, the PC is well-suited to make appropriate recommendations for the creation of these missing guidelines.

With due respect, the PC Chair's description of its process sounds like "we know best, but won't say what will be acceptable ahead of time" (especially for "non-conforming" lots of which there are many, by virtue of the City's choice to so define them).

I must also take issue with the suggestion that there is a timid or uninformed -- but duly noticed -- neighbor problem which justifies paternalistic PC action. In my experience, neighbors often have too much influence or present a dilemma of unpredictability for the earnest homeowner trying to responsibly improve his/her own property -- like the adjacent neighbor with a two-story in disrepair "suggesting" that his neighbor keep his remodel to one story... or else there may be various other objections, all of which create a specter of delay and increased costs to the improver (this example is not hypothetical).

The PC Chair's position also serves to emphasize a myopic focus on proposed improvements or new housing, rather than on what is existing, but also impacting aesthetics and public safety/enjoyment/fair use. As a simple example, try to walk down either side of Middle Ave -- the neighborhood of concern for the home at issue here. The sidewalk mysteriously disappears in places where landscaping and other obstructions encroach into the public right of way, forcing pedestrians into the street. If addressing this problem is not within the PC's seemingly far-reaching powers, perhaps another MP department is willing to examine this patch-work of encroachments which -- in the opinion of this writer -- seem at least as detrimental to public welfare as a new home to which no one objects?

Posted by structural change, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 24, 2014 at 6:20 pm

Former, I don't think you're a former at all. I think you're a developer with an ax to grind. I've been following the PC for years via their online streaming on Monday nights, and I've yet to see any reasonable project denied. Usually, the commissioners go out of their way to accommodate the owners.

Some of you seem to think that Menlo Park should have no zoning whatsoever. Well, then maybe you made the wrong choice in moving here. There are other Bay Area cities that are a better fit for your philosophy, and maybe you should consider relocating.

My own neighborhood is mostly original post-war tract housing, and no, it's not 2-bedroom bungalows but ranch-style homes that can accommodate most families. On my street, every single house has been remodeled, many expanded substantially, and every remodel has been tasteful because owners have tried (and succeeded) in maintaining the look&feel of the neighborhood. Even the one remodel that was done as a spec house, the developers were MP residents who respected the neighborhood and didn't try to squeeze a monster home onto a 1/4 acre lot.

The problems occur when developers come in trying to maximize profits with no concerns about the impact on their neighbors or the city.

Thank you to John and the rest of the commissioners for holding the line and doing what you can to keep our city from becoming McMansionized.

Posted by Julie, a resident of another community
on Jan 24, 2014 at 6:47 pm

I DO believe Former MP resident. She/he posted earlier on this thread. Why do I believe what was stated? Because it has "the ring of truth". Somehow you know that the story is informed by first-hand experience.

Off subject: why didn't the Planning Commission take as much interest in "architectural guidelines" for the monstrosity housing development on El Camino & College Avenue. How does THAT conform to the neighborhood precedents set by existing properties? Lot coverage??...any codes regarding that. Any set-back laws? You couldn't build closer to the property lines .

So, how about this idea?: An equal application of the laws and codes for all development.

In other words: no more double-speak.

Posted by Former MP Resident, a resident of Portola Valley: other
on Jan 24, 2014 at 7:29 pm

I am what I represent myself to be (thank you Julie). My facts I have included are true and I raise the issues/questions I have raised in the interest of constructive change. Menlo Park is connected to all of the communities in this area and vice versa. My family and I are part of this broader community.

I am hopeful that those governing MP will take a genuine interest in the issues raised here and make some tangible progress.

My respectful suggestion would be for those governing MP to invest equal vigor in looking out for those who want to continue to live in, invest in and improve MP, as much as for those who apparently would like it to stay exactly the same.

As noted in my first comment, above, we left MP reluctantly after finally receiving a variance for a modest expansion of our family home, but feeling completely exhausted from a very expensive, unduly complicated and capricious journey through the MP planning department and PC.

Posted by Resident Middle Ave, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jan 27, 2014 at 9:19 am

On the PC agenda for Monday Jan 27 is another two- story home being proposed at 727 Middle Ave. I'm a neighbor and sat with the owner, architect and an associate planner for PC. My concerns about the new home construction have heard but owner and architect have decided to proceed with their plan despite my voiced concerns. I'm very happy to see growth and improvements made in Menlo Park neighborhoods and but not at the cost of those people who live in it. There obviously need to more clear guidelines for the PC to follow.

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jan 27, 2014 at 10:47 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

These projects only come to the PC because each of them requires some type of variance. People are free to build whatever they want without going to the PC IF their project conforms with the zoning ordinance.

Posted by Garrett , a resident of another community
on Jan 27, 2014 at 12:46 pm

There is going to be a time when small outdated pre WW2 housing or post war is really going to be ripe for redevelopment. Not everyone wants to take on a remodel project.

Posted by What affordable housing?, a resident of Woodside: other
on Jan 27, 2014 at 12:48 pm

As another former MP resident, I'm curious to know more about the comment above: "* The city's professed commitment to affordable housing."

We moved because there was no affordable housing for a double-income but no facebook stock type family. The only people that can afford to buy in this town now are C-levels, VCs, developers, or tech cash-outs. We are relegated to tiny condo's with no yard, 3/1 shacks in EMP, or really overpriced 3/2s.

Every offer we made for a fixer in MP was outbid by a developer planning to scrap and rebuild a mini-mansion. That's the kind of town MP has built... welcome all developers! Forget families that are already here. out of luck.

Posted by Former MP Resident, a resident of Portola Valley: other
on Jan 27, 2014 at 10:32 pm

I am encouraged that this discussion seems to be trending in a positive, "let's really look at what the rules are and make them fair,transparent and predictable for all direction."

My observation re Peter C's comment (whose positions are typically well-reasoned and factual) is that MP requires many to seek variances because their properties have been overly-broadly defined as "non-conforming." Re-examining this definition might very well promote predictability and parity for many lots large and small in MP.

The MP PC Chair has been in the loop on this string of comments. May we have the benefit of your thoughts on this topic? Perhaps a willingness to put it on an upcoming agenda for comment and discussion?

Posted by For guidelines, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 28, 2014 at 1:56 pm

Menlo. Park and Atherton are among very few tones without residential design guidelines. These help architects, developers, homeowners, neighbors know at the beginning if the design process what "fits" in.

This is important for all lots. In my area, some lots are not standard and projects get reviewed and many others don't. Guidelines can be administered by staff with commission review of those that don't follow them well

Keep issues of design and size separated. I think both are problems in Menlo park but must be addressed differently.

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