In the latest episode of Town vs. Gown: Santa Clara Edition, the Santa Clara City Council, at its April 11 meeting, for a second time denied a renovation project to expand an 1885 Queen Anne house on Lafayette Way in the Old Quad. The owner had made changes the Council asked for.
After an hour and a half of discussion, the Council voted 4-1 to deny the project. Council Member Patrick Kolstad was the sole dissenting vote. Council Members Jerry Marsalli and Teresa O’Neill were absent.
The Council disregarded the City Attorney’s recommendation to postpone the vote until they had a proper finding that the proposal didn’t meet architectural standards and zoning code. Instead, the council voted first and asked for reasons second.
The project expands a 3-bedroom 2-bath house, including remodeling a partially finished basement. The work also includes bringing wiring and pipes up to code, repairs to the deteriorating foundation, front porch and stairs, a new garage, and three additional parking spaces. The house is currently vacant. There was a mugging close by recently, and some neighbors say the yard is overgrown and they’ve seen rats on the property.
In July 2015, the Architectural Review Committee (ARC) approved the initial renovation plan for five bedrooms and four baths. The Santa Clara Historical & Landmarks Commission approved the project because it preserved all of the home’s historic features.
“We took a narrow view,” said HLC Commissioner Steven Estes. “We had no reason to object to the changes, in terms of the defining features of the house. We deliberately avoided getting into land use issues.”
Former Mayor Patricia Mahan appealed that approval.
The Planning Commission sustained the appeal; referring the project back to the Architectural Committee (ARC) and directing the Planning Dept. staff to determine the legal status of the existing basement, and to tell the owner to eliminate one bedroom and bathroom and provide more parking.
Project Architect Sal Caruso appealed the Planning Commission’s decision to the City Council, which upheld the Planning Dept.’s recommendation.
The project returned to the Planning Commission with four bedrooms and three baths, and has only one bedroom and bath in the basement instead of two. The remaining space is designated a home theater and game room. It’s still the same size, however. The Planning Commission approved it and Old Quad resident Robert O’Keefe appealed the approval.
Old Quad resident Mary Jean Oliva said that R-1 zoning – detached single family houses – were intended to promote single-family environments. “I don’t feel that that is the case with this project and that you should uphold the appeal on that basis. The idea of the zoning, it’s to protect all of us, to have neighborhoods we can enjoy.”
San Jose resident Scott Lane said that the renovation was “a canary in a coal mine.” (In fact, Old Quad complaints about student rentals go back at least 30 years).
“I can’t imagine having a home 4,100 square feet and it not being a mini-dorm,” said resident Debbie Van Overen. “A block away we have ping-pong tables on the front lawn. I’ve had drunken students knocking at my door, and trying to shoulder open my door. The police can only do so much.” Van Overen also suggested that the City buy two older motels on The Alameda and build dormitories on the land.
“This council has set things right in Santa Clara,” said former Mayor Patricia Mahan. “For the first time in a long time Santa Clarans are hopeful again, returning to the Santa Clara way. It’s true that you don’t look at the use until you’re looking at a use permit. But until the Council passes the neighborhood protection ordinance and the historic preservation ordinance there’s no protection for our single-family neighborhoods except review on a case-by case-basis.
“This applicant in a business, he’s in the business of running student housing and we know that,” Mahan continued. “Although you can’t look at the use, per say, you can look at the floor plan and how it might be used. The floor plan it not what you would expect in a single family home. This is the addition of a complete second floor in the basement.
“You can see how easily this can be converted into a mini-dorm,” she said. “If this home does become a mini-dorm, what enforcement action can be taken later? Or is this house going to be lost forever.”
One Santa Clara resident, Tony Bunting, said that neighborhood preservation was best served by bringing the 130-year old house up to current code. “The fact is this house may fall down in an earthquake. For the preservation of the house it’s in everybody’s interest to remodel it.”
As far as the size of the house, he said, “My parents live in a 4,100 square foot house, five bedrooms and three baths. My father has two pickup trucks, a van and a sedan. I don’t think it’s anybody’s business how big anybody’s house is. As far as who’s going to move in, a lot of assumptions are being made.” When the renovation is complete, Bunting said, the value of the house will increase – as will that of the other houses on the street.
Gadfly Deborah Bress added her decades-old criticisms of City government to the discussion.
“Santa Clara is a mess. The Old Quad is a mess. The Northside is a mess. How many times do we appeal this? I’m very suspicious the homeowner isn’t here. [Instead] they bring in a lawyer and a man in a really good suit. I suggest that someone look at the County record. Regardless of how many hodge-podge additions, it doesn’t matter how it’s been used what it’s been used for.
“We need to stop, and start getting our house in order,” Bress continued. “We have all this high-density development going on but we don’t know are that the electricity requirements. Let’s start acting responsible as a City Council, as City staff.”
The basement’s status as living space was no clearer than it was in November.
If the 1,500 sf space is considered living space, the expansion is 794 sf to a 3,332 sf house. If it’s not, the expansion is 2,310 sf to a 1,816 sf house. The Acting Planning Director said it was an unusually big remodel, but no one cited regulations or ordinances limiting the size of remodels.
Old Quad resident Lou Faria said it wasn’t living space because it wasn’t heated. However, the rest of the house doesn’t have central heating, either.
“The basement could be regarded as an architectural issue,” said City Attorney Ren Nosky. Heating was irrelevant. What was relevant was “whether the design before you meets the architectural standards in the zoning ordinance.”
Even with the City Attorney pointing the way to a reasoned decision, the Council chose a display of sensibility over sense.
“This is a total headache,” said Council Member Debi Davis. “We cannot look at the use. We have to look at the process. I have my reasons for not wanting to approve this. It’s an 1885 house and we’ve destroyed so many houses in the neighborhood and this is one more.
“Whether it’s architecturally sound or the HLC or the architectural Committee looked at this, my heart says, to add 550 square feet to a basement for bedrooms and bathrooms, I just don’t want to destroy another house,” she continued. “I want it to stay a single family home.”
“I’m tired of this issue coming before us again and again and again,” said Council Member Caserta. “From a free market perspective, the property owners have the right to their property.
“The issue for me is,” he continued, “I live in the Old Quad, too. I live across the street from the Morse Mansion. I agree with the Moore’s lawyer, that we’re making a decision here that might put us legally in trouble. [But] I see what’s going on in the neighborhood and I see the issues. Someone said, ‘vote your conscience.’ My conscience is so torn on this. I am really struggling with this.”
“I’m struggling the same way,” said Gillmor. “I believe in property rights and these owners have the right to expand their property. They came to the Council. We told them what we thought they ought to do and they did it.
“I’m also the chair of the NURC, and we struggle constantly with the balance of the university, the neighborhood,” she continued. “The transformation of these homes really hits close to home in the Old Quad. I look at this project as one with a lot of merit. However, it’s a complete remodel, more than doubling the size of the home.
“It’s a complete transformation, one that could lend itself to being non-compatible with the surrounding neighborhood,” she continued. “So I’m going to uphold the appeal and go forward in a way that’s completely uncomfortable for me in this decision. But I believe that quality-of-life is an issue in our City. I’m uncomfortable with the architectural approval of this.”