Building a new house in Palo Alto

Building a new house in Palo Alto

Friday, January 20, 2012

Finding the perfect neighborhood & getting your plans approved

The first time we saw our new neighborhood, Green Acres, it was love at first sight.  We loved the wide streets, mature trees, and proximity to open space, parks and schools.  We loved that it was a quiet, modest neighborhood with generously sized lots and a mix of ranch homes, Craftsmans, Spanish manors, and no McMansions.  We loved seeing kids on bikes roaming the streets and dogs off-leash in the field behind the high school.  Everything that we saw we loved, so we went ahead and tied the knot.

Fast forward two months later...we're still in the honeymoon period but there are a few things I've learned along the way to share with would-be home builders.  These tips come from my ever expanding "do as I say, not as I do"files.   For the madly in love, these may be a bit of a buzz kill, but as the wise man who walked me down the aisle at our Vegas wedding warned, only fools rush in...

Part 1: The Neighborhood Rules

Rules, schmules. 
1.  Buyer beware -- check the local sex offender registry
Don't let love blind you to potential red flags.  The Megan's Law database allows you to search for registered sex offenders by street, city, or zip code.  Look up the neighborhood you want to buy in and check for worrisome offenders within close proximity of the house.  We completely forgot to do this until after we bought the house, but we lucked out and nothing turned up.  This is not worth leaving to chance, do the check before you make a bid.  I've had friends back out of an offer and forfeit their 3% deposit after they realized a convicted sex offender lived across the street.

2.  Be attracted to the neighborhood's architecture
The first rule of neighborly love is thou shalt not build a fugly house.  What's fugly, you ask?  Fugly is one of those "I know it when I see it" standards.  The reason it matters is because Palo Alto, like many cities, tries to preserve the "charm and character" of its neighborhoods and will not approve designs that stray too far from the community norm.  In other words, if your neighbors are complaining about your fugly house plans, you're going to have a really hard time getting past the required planning review (which is only the first step towards being granted your permits).  The best way to test for whether you'll be able to build the house you want is to take a look at the architecture that's already there.  If you hate the style of homes around you, chances are your neighborhood beautification plans are not going to be compatible with the locals.  And it's nothing personal, everybody loves the Flintstone house -- just not next door to them.  Green Acres has been described as a low-key, mainstream, "Leave it to Beaver" kind of neighborhood (sorry, no ultra contemporary homes) and we think that's just swell.

3.  Make sure you're compatible for height, mass and scale
Houses come in all shapes and sizes.  When we bought our house, we didn't do a whole lot of inspection since we thought we were just buying the land and could build whatever we wanted on it.  Wrongo.  Palo Alto requires that new developments "be compatible with the neighborhood pattern for height (vertical profile), mass (bulk or volume) and scale (perceived size)."  In particular, they pay special attention to the impact of your construction plans on the adjacent homes, aka your "streetscape."  Before you buy, take a long and hard look at the the houses to your immediate left and right of your property because their roof lines, height, landscaping and window placement will all impact what you're able to build.  Every city is different, so just make sure to check what their rules are before you buy.  And words of wisdom from our architect: Never try to build the first two-story house in a neighborhood, especially one of all Eichlers.

Luckily for us, Green Acres is a pleasant mix of one and two-story homes surrounded by mature landscaping that allow for a great deal of privacy.  However, our lot is sandwiched between two single story homes so we have to keep our rooflines low in order to remain compatible with our vertically challenged neighbors.  By the way, if you drive around Palo Alto as I did, you may notice some very odd and awkward looking homes that tower over their neighbors and stick out like a sore thumb.  I snapped photos of these anomalies and was hoping to use them to make a case for why we should be able to add another few feet to our dinky little 25-foot high Craftsman.  When I ran this line of thinking by our architect, she explained that the homes probably pre-date the city's guidelines and were the precise reason why the city created the standards in 2005.  Bah.  So while it saddens me to write this, I've come to the conclusion that the fastest way of getting your plans approved is to follow the rules.

Part 2:  Guidelines for getting your plans approved 

1.  Adhere to the city guidelines, duh
To me, guidelines are merely suggestions, which is why you probably don't want someone who's loosey goosey about rules to be your architect.  The single best way to get approval for your plans is to follow all of the standards laid out in this 15-page document:  Palo Alto Single Family Individual Review Guidelines.  Fortunately, unlike me, our architect plays by the rules and diligently incorporated these guidelines into our plans.  Here are some of the things she built to minimize our impact on our neighbors and the streetscape:
- Made garage narrower in width relative to the house and set-back from the house's front facade (the city wants new homes to have less prominent garages)
- Placed arbor over garage to make it look shorter
- Used horizontal siding (avoided strong vertical elements that exaggerate height)
- Set second floor back from the front facade and away from side lot lines
- Used Dutch gable roofs to minimize visual height of house
- Ensured windows did not align and look into neighbors' homes
- Avoided second floor balcony (allows for more privacy for neighbors)
Note: Another clever thing that our architect did was include the 2-story house behind ours in her streetscape drawing.  This was not required by the city but helps viewers see that our house sits nicely in between all the various house heights.

Our "Streetscape" drawing by Jeanine Unterleitner, Residential Designer
2.  Optional but recommended: Preliminary Review meeting
For $100 fee you can request a preliminary review meeting where you will go over your initial plans with the city planner and architect assigned to your project.  This is not required, it's simply an opportunity to get some early feedback before you make your official submission.  We opted to do this to make sure we were on the right track and get any necessary course corrections and were happy with the investment.  The planners ended up being very happy about the design and commended our architect for her thoughtful site plan.  The meeting was also useful because they offered helpful suggestions on how to further improve our compatibility with the neighbors (many of which we incorporated into our final plans).  Here are some of the things suggestions we incorporated from the meeting:
- Added a water table (horizontal trim line) to break up the second story
- Adjusted details like the front porch columns and railing to break up perceived height of front facade
- Decided garage door will be natural wood with carriage panelling (the city hates fugly garage doors)
- Extended the garage roof lower to match neighbor's roof line
- Added south-facing windows (this was a sustainability recommendation since it allows sun to heat house in winter)
3.  Required: Planning Review and notifying your neighbors 
Once you've completed your home plans you submit them for an official Planning Review.  At this time, you are required to post a sign on the property with a drawing of your proposed house and  streetscape.  You must send a photo of your installed sign to the city.  See below to for my submission (hopefully our planner's not a cat person.)
Astro and Cisco lobbying for community support.
The city also sends a notification to all homes within a 150 ft radius of your lot.  Neighbors have three weeks to visit the city planning office to review your proposal and submit their feedback for consideration.  This is where you pray that you have no haters in the hood, which brings me to my final tip (which is not a rule, merely a suggestion):

Extra Credit:  Go out and meet the neighbors
It's so much nicer to arrive in person rather than show up in the form of a yard sign or letter from the city or an early morning bulldozer.  Since we had Martin Luther King day off, we decided it was the perfect time to spread a little bit of neighborly love.  I spent the morning baking up a storm while brushing up on my Flanders speak: Hi-dilly-ho-dilly neighboreenos! Howdily-doo! Heydily-ho, window buddy!  And that afternoon my husband and I went door to door to meet our new neighborinos and deliver plates of Sweet Meyer Lemony cookie goodness.

Much to our surprise and delight we were treated to Armenian tea at one house, fresh egg rolls at another, and hospitality all around.  It was an afternoon full of neighborhood history and gossip.  We learned names and professions of our neighbors, who has kids and how many grandkids, who lives mostly in their vacation home and who rides their bike to work.  We learned which neighbors fought over construction plans and who's had asbestos issues and where the neighborhood's fugly house is located.  We were happy to learn that our adjacent neighbors are easy going--a nice 93-year old lady on one side and a rental property on the other (we met the owner/landlord and he seemed pretty pleased with our construction plans).  Our favorite story of the day was learning about the 80-year-old neighbor who vowed to run buck naked down the street if Obama won in 2008.  Her midnight streak remains to this day the biggest scandal in Green Acres history.  Ah, we can't wait to call it home.


  1. Great post, Kay! I had no idea city planner guidelines were so controlling.... I wonder how PA ranks on a scale from 1-10 in the Bay Area along those lines. As for the streaker, is the wager on again for 2012??

    1. We're told that Palo Alto is pretty strict compared to neighboring cities like Mountain View, Los Altos and Cupertino. The neighbors are trying to figure out how to up the ante for the 2012 election. Oh my!

  2. Rules, schmules. But it's good to have rule followers on your team. An excellent list of tips, per usual. I want to meet the streaker.

    1. Bring your camera crew on over for election night 2012, please.

  3. P.S. I want to hear more about the Vegas wedding!

    1. Our actual wedding with all of our friends and family was in Costa Rica. However, on our 1-yr anniversary we went to Vegas to get legally married by Elvis because Uncle Sam doesn't recognize foreign nuptials.