Since last July, former Yahoo executive Marissa Mayer has twice applied for a permit from the city of Palo Alto to tear down three of four townhomes on her Addison Avenue residential property. And twice she’s been rejected.
Now, she’s hoping that the third time will be a charm.
Mayer wants to replace the units with a swimming pool and an accessory dwelling unit, but her plans have run into conflict with a new state law designed to protect and build badly needed housing — and the city’s confusion on how to interpret the laws, city emails show.
Mayer, who with her family filed a second pre-application in mid-October that was again rejected, is in the midst of a third attempt, submitting another revised pre-application to Palo Alto’s planning department even as the city tries to interpret its way through complex new legislation.
The family’s property at 561 Addison Ave. contains four two-story townhomes. Mayer initially planned to knock down three units and the adjacent garages and retain the home closest to the street. She planned to add the pool in the middle of the property and an accessory dwelling unit in the back, according to city documents. Eventually, Mayer wanted to replace the remaining townhome at the front of the property with a new single-family dwelling, according to emails obtained from the city.
But in Palo Alto’s initial interpretation of state law Senate Bill 330, the Housing Crisis Act of 2019, the city isn’t allowed to approve any project that results in a net loss of housing units, Emily Foley, city associate planner, wrote to Patterson Properties LLC, the real estate firm representing Mayer, on July 21.
SB 330 is one of a series of housing laws designed to push cities to allow more housing to help make up an estimated 2 million-unit shortfall of residences in California. The law, which went into effect in 2020, banned projects that reduce residential density through Jan. 1, 2025.
The legislation requires that any housing development projects replace the existing housing with at least the same number of units.
Subsequent legislation, Senate Bill 8, which goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2022, clarifies SB 330’s provisions and extends them until Jan. 1, 2030. Notably, SB 8 also applies to projects that include a single-family dwelling.
Mayer’s 561 Addison project appears to have been caught up in confusing interpretations of the law. Under SB 330, whether the current townhomes are considered a “housing development project” or are single-family dwellings has been the subject of much back and forth with the city, and it’s a point the city needs to clarify through a code revision, Jodie Gerhardt, manager of current planning, noted in a staff email earlier in summer.
As an example, under SB 330 “a residential triplex cannot be demolished and replaced with a duplex as this would be a net loss of one unit,” Gerhardt wrote to Patterson Project’s real estate attorney Chris Wade in an Oct. 13 email.
The plan could proceed if the city were to interpret that a townhome is a single-family dwelling; single-family dwelling units under SB 330 are exempt since they don’t appear to meet the definition of a “housing development project,” Gerhardt noted.
A development project for construction of a new single-unit dwelling, with no accessory or junior accessory dwelling unit, is exempt from the “no net loss” density requirement, Gerhardt said,
But by adding the ADU to the mix, the plan violates the city’s current ordinances. Staff took a closer look at state ADU law and local codes to determine whether the project could combine a detached accessory dwelling unit and a junior accessory dwelling unit with a duplex on an R-2 lot.
“Unfortunately, this is not currently permitted under our ADU ordinance,” Assistant City Attorney Albert Yang wrote in an Oct. 27 email to Wade. “For the most part, our ordinance authorizes ADUs only when created in conjunction with a single family use.”
City planners also considered sections of state law that require the city to approve applications to create ADUs in conjunction with a multifamily use. The city could consider a duplex or two-family use to be multifamily, but apparently, the townhomes don’t qualify.
The only way Mayer’s family could achieve its goal and still be compliant under SB 330 would be to first replace two of the existing townhomes with two detached ADUs, and then replace the remaining two units with a new two-family home under state and city ordinances that apply to existing multifamily dwellings, Yang told Mayer’s real estate firm.
A spokesperson for Mayer said on Wednesday that a third pre-application was submitted to the city on Nov. 8. He declined to comment on details regarding the revisions at this time since the application is still in discussion. He said they are hopeful that this time they can achieve their goals and still be in compliance.
“Representatives for the family have been proactively engaged with the various city authorities responsible for this process,” he said.
While new housing projects would need to comply with the revisions under SB 8 starting next year, Mayer’s property would not be impacted if it passes muster under SB 330 and is submitted to the city before Jan. 1, 2022, according to a legislative counsel’s analysis.
Planning staff said the most recent proposed project is to remodel the existing structure into a single-family, single-unit dwelling, according to city spokesperson Meghan Horrigan-Taylor. The three rear existing dwelling units — located at 563, 565, 567 Addison — and their attached garage structures would be deconstructed.
The north wall of the garage attached to the remaining single-unit dwelling at 561 Addison Ave., where it is affected by the removal of the adjacent structure, would be sealed and finished to match the existing exterior wall surfaces. The roof deck on the 561 Addison garage, which is currently accessible from the home’s master bedroom, would have new a guardrail added, creating a contiguous rail around the deck.
The guardrail would be the same style and color as the one that exists. A new fence that is consistent with the city’s policies would be installed to separate the driveway from the backyard; some fencing would be removed from the existing patio area of 561 Addison to allow access to its expanded backyard.
A separate parcel map or certificate of compliance process would be needed to combine the lots into one parcel.