In the words of the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield, Santa Clara’s Eichler homes don’t get no respect.
What Eichlers, you ask?
The Pomeroy Green co-operative and Pomeroy West condominium complexes at Benton Street and Pomeroy Ave. They’re among the few examples of the midcentury modern developer’s experiments in multi-family development, called “cluster housing”—what we call “townhouse” developments today—and featuring all the signature elements of Eichler’s patio homes.
Eichler foresaw the problems created by suburban sprawl and considered how the qualities of suburban living could be achieved while preserving open space, creating community and achieving densities needed for urban-style mass transit.
These pioneering Santa Clara developments have been enshrined as textbook examples of cluster development, highlighted by a national magazine and included in a foundational text on city planning.
Sociologist and urbanist William H. White discusses the Pomeroy Eichlers at length in his authoritative study, Cluster Development. CA-Modern newsletter (formerly Eichler Network Newsletter) featured the Pomeroy Eichlers in its Spring 2005 edition. And Look magazine did a two-page spread on the Pomeroy Eichlers in its July 14, 1964 issue, Solution for Suburbia.
Architect Claude Oakland’s original blueprints are preserved in an archive at U.C. Berkeley, and a recent visiting scholar gave a talk there on Eichler’s multi-family developments, illustrated by Santa Clara’s Pomeroy Eichlers. A few years ago visiting European architects visited the developments.
Despite the broad international recognition they’ve garnered, Santa Clara City Hall, remains unconvinced—some say “hostile”—to the idea that mid-century modern patio houses, let alone the Pomeroy Eichlers, are historic. They’re not addressed in the City’s historical preservation ordinance. Last year the City Council approved the teardown of a Mackay patio home and its replacement with a conventional two-story ranch.
The City’s position, expressed in a Jan. 4 Historical and Landmarks Commission agenda report, is that the Pomeroy Eichlers “are only considered as potentially significant” and none of them are included in the City’s inventory of historic properties.
This issue has come to a head over a planning department recommendation that the City Council approve a development plan for a 12,383 square foot lot adjacent to Pomeroy Green and across the street from Pomeroy West.
The owner wants to subdivide the lot into four parcels with two-story single-family detached houses. Currently a single one-story ranch house built by the original landowner stands on the lot. The City Council rejected a 2015 plan for five houses on the parcel.
“There’s no mention of multi-family development” in the Eichler texts, said Planning Commissioner Brandon Reinhardt at a Sept. 27, 2017 Planning Commission meeting, also noting that he had been denied a building permit in another city to remodel an Eichler house.
“Just because an architect ventured into another product” doesn’t mean it’s historic, Reinhardt said in September. He had reviewed Eichler neighborhood design standards in other cities and couldn’t find “a single” reference to multi-family housing.
The proposed development went to the Historical and Landmarks Commission, which recommended a community meeting between residents and the developer. The Council didn’t accept that recommendation and referred it to the Architectural Committee.
The proposal requires a zoning change because four detached houses can’t conform to open space, footprint, building height and set-back requirements for single family houses (R1-L6). Nor would they comply with those requirements for the property’s current low-density multi-family (R3-18D) zoning.
The solution to this conundrum is not, it seems, a four-unit Eichler-style cluster that would automatically conform to the zoning. Instead, the Planning Department’s solution is the all-purpose Planned Development (PD) designation—which, as the planning department report says, “relaxes the requirements …[of] R3-18D.”
An Eichler Neighborhood’s Character
The Planning Department report says that the new houses would harmonize with the Pomeroy Eichlers because, “The proposed project is similar in massing and size as it proposes a two-story height and has a low roof profile.” Residents disagree.
They say that the proposed development is out of character—for example, it has peaked roofs instead of flat ones. They also say analysis of the relationships between the new buildings and the landscape—regarding light, privacy and ventilation—is insufficient. The new houses would be only 10 feet from Pomeroy Green property lines and stand 24 feet over their patios.
Residents say the new houses’ crowding on the lot isn’t harmonious with the Eichler developments’ extensive open space—which include pocket parks and playgrounds, flower and herb gardens, clubhouse and swimming pools, many mature trees, and deep, grassy setbacks and pathways between buildings.
“Overall, the [Pomeroy Green] project feels spacious due to the clustering of the buildings that allows open space to prevail between buildings,” Ken Kratz, a retired City building inspector and president of the Pomeroy Green homeowners association, wrote in the association’s draft application for a federal and state historical designation.
Kratz, who has a degree in architecture, developed a model of the proposed project and has offered some alternative cluster home proposals. The proposed development, he says, would block 40 percent of the sunlight on a Pomeroy West park that would border the new houses, and interfere with the light in backyards bordering the new development.
To make his point, Kratz took a reporter on a tour, equipped with a 10-foot pole and a 20-foot pole to show exactly how near 10 feet is and how a 24-foot building at that distance from the existing homes affects the sense of privacy. (He offers an open invitation to Santa Clara officials, planners and commissioners to take the tour).
Property Rights vs. Property Rights
At a recent meeting, the City’s Architectural Review Committee made several changes to the design in order to mitigate some of the privacy concerns but the most significant ones—the setbacks and roof heights—weren’t modified.
“Santa Clara’s community design standards are pretty clear for patio homes,” said Kratz. “They kept talking about property rights. What about my property rights?”
In real-estate preoccupied California, those property rights are significant matters of concern—attested to by numerous battles over Eichler preservation and special zoning for Eichler neighborhoods throughout the state.
“The biggest negative of multi-story housing behind Eichlers is going to be the loss of privacy,” said realtor Kevin Swartz of Sunnyvale-based Sereno Group, which has a specialty in Eichler properties.
“The perception is that there’s a lack of privacy. The big draw for Eichlers is the indoor-outdoor quality and the natural light. A lot of Eichler owners don’t have window coverings on their floor-to-ceiling windows and sliding glass doors.”
Swartz says he has seen as much as a 10 percent cut in value of Eichler homes backing up to a conventional two-story house. “When you lose that sense of privacy a lot of buyers are going to pass.”
Kratz is asking the Council to put the 1075 Pomeroy project on hold “until the historic significance of my neighborhood can be determined and the ramifications of that determination” can be evaluated.
Does the City Have a Multi-Family Bias?
Residents are also offended by what they see as “a pervasive bias against multifamily housing by the Planning Commission and some City Staff,” as Kratz put it in an email. This alleged bias is “preventing the City from considering alternative designs for the 1075 Pomeroy Avenue property that may be more compatible with …Pomeroy Green and Pomeroy West.”
At a Sept. 27 planning commission meeting, City staff explained that the reason the PD zoning was needed was because it “allows …for-sale” property, and Planner Steve Le referred to the existing zoning as “for rent.” Commissioner Reinhardt also described project alternatives using the words “apartments” and “rentals.”
The Pomeroy Eichlers are “ownership” properties—condominiums and co-ops. And given Eichler houses’ current popularity, it’s not hard to imagine that there are four homebuyers in the Bay Area who would jump at the opportunity to buy a new one.
The Architectural Committee approved the project and now it goes before the Council for consideration on May 15.