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Palo Alto Eichler Guidelines

In a concerted effort to retain the distinct architectural style and cohesiveness of its multitude of post-World War II Eichler neighborhoods, Palo Alto has enacted voluntary design guidelines for homeowners residing in these areas.

Named after architect Joseph Eichler, these mid-century modern tract homes are prevalent in California that feature glass walls, clean geometric lines, atriums and flat or low sloping roofs. Palo Alto has 32 Eichler tracts within its borders built between 1949 (University Gardens) and 1974 (Los Arboles Addition #2). Of these boroughs, Green Gables and Greenmeadow  # 1 & 2 are on the National Register of Historic Districts and numerous others are subject to single story overlay (SSO) requirements. SSO restrictions inhibit the ability of homeowners to construct new 2-story homes or add a second story addition due to historic or privacy concerns.

Initiated in 2016, Palo Alto’s Eichler Design Guidelines were approved earlier this month in an effort to retain neighborhood continuity and consistency. They call out compatibility criteria for remodels, additions, new construction, accessory dwelling units (ADUs) as well as maintenance, repair and replacement for windows, roofs, chimneys, drive and walkways, and landscaping. The goal of the 126-page document is to preserve each borough’s sense of privacy and architectural character by avoiding remodels and updates that disrupt the cohesive nature of these communities.

The design parameters attempt to attenuate those who firmly believe in retaining the mid-century modern architecture as well as homeowners who desire to renovate their homes. The City Council enlisted historic architecture firm, Page & Turnbull, to assist in the creation of a detailed set of guidelines. This came as a result of applications by homeowners within a number of the city’s Eichler districts to remodel their homes by adding second stories. Two applications were approved and two denied, resulting in what the city felt was a need to clarify overarching design advice for its 32 Eichler neighborhoods.

Though currently voluntary, the City Council is considering passing an ordinance making the recommendations more restrictive. The option favored by city planning and the Historic Resources Board would give the planning department discretion to enact the Eichler guidelines in combination with existing “Individual Review” guidelines, which the city uses in assessing two-story homes and second-floor additions. These existing guidelines “would be enhanced to include techniques for designing second floor additions to one-story Eichler homes and compatible new two-story homes in Eichler tracts,” according to the planning report.

Many who reside in these mid-century modern neighborhoods are encouraging the City Council to avoid making these guidelines overly constricting. Many voiced concerns about these standards severely hampering their ability to update their homes if the voluntary aspect of the design criteria becomes mandatory. Others welcome the guidelines as a protection mechanism to retain the unique architectural style and cohesiveness of Palo Alto’s Eichler areas.

The council’s liaison to the Historic Resources Board, Councilwoman Karen Holman, didn’t provide any insights about whether the council will choose to keep the recommendations purely voluntary. According to Palo Alto Online, Ms. Holman said she is hopeful the design guidelines will help prevent additional neighborhood disagreements over new home construction and proposed single story overlay districts. Holman noted the current situation in which neighbors are fighting neighbors over new construction additions; “I see these as a resource to help abate those appeals and those battles within neighborhoods.”

To review the final version of the Palo Alto Eichler Neighborhood Design Guidelines, click here. Currently, these guidelines are just that – voluntary but highly encouraged recommendations for homeowners living in one of Palo Alto’s post-WWII boroughs. The fate of the recommendations remains to be seen but it is highly probably that residents will have a lot of input on whether these recommendations become restrictions.

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