[Metroactive News&Issues]

[ Metro | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

Living Large

[whitespace] house House Bountiful: This newly constructed casa grande on Camino Pablo in Willow Glen looms large on its block of mostly 1930s and 1940s single-story homes.

Christopher Gardner

As Silicon Valley real estate continues to boom, owners of quaint, modest dwellings are tearing them down and building mansions--history, lot size and the neighborhood be damned

By Traci Hukill

LAST APRIL Frank and Alice Bracken bulldozed all but one wall of their 1928 French Tudor cottage on Carolyn Street in Willow Glen and started building a three-story, 3,500-square-foot house in its place. One year later the new work is still unfinished. Festooned with scaffolding and flapping tarps, the 30-foot-tall stucco walls loom bizarrely over the quaint Candyland dwellings that line this charmed avenue in one of San Jose's most desirable neighborhoods.

From the sidewalk Alice Bracken squints over the green netting construction fence and up at her pitched roof line. "I think this big fence in front casts the eye up," she theorizes. "It makes the house seem bigger than it really is. I think in time it will blend in very nicely."

Inside the airy house, with its cathedral ceilings and expansive windows, are four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a roomy master suite with the requisite Jacuzzi and retreat room for exercise equipment, a formal dining room and parlor, and an attic "bonus room" that will function as a third-floor art studio. Bracken explains why her small family--she and her husband, Frank, have one daughter--requires so much living space.

"We wanted the room. We needed the room," she says. "Both Frank and I have big families. We have a tremendous amount of people coming in and out of our house, staying with us."

Moving wasn't an option. "Willow Glen is a treasure," she says helplessly. "We don't want to leave here, because we love our neighbors so much."

Perhaps unwittingly, the Brackens have assembled all the ingredients for what people throughout the valley now call a Monster House: Small lot. Small neighbors. Big house.

They didn't intend to go so big initially. First it was just going to be one extra room to make visits from Grandma and her big gallumphing Bouviers less cramped. Then the Brackens' financial situation improved, thanks, ironically, to the building boom--they make ornamental mantels and balustrades for the massive new houses being built in Silver Creek and other developments. And suddenly they saw a chance to turn the old house (which Alice termed her "House of Usher" after the Poe story about an outwardly beautiful but evil-possessed house) from a cramped, termite-damaged bungalow with only one bathroom to a spacious place that could handle a full house of guests "with balance and privacy."

Though the Brackens insist their neighbors have been "wonderful," a volley of blistering letters in the Willow Glen Resident suggests that Glenites are irritated with the rash of large houses springing up along their famously quaint streetscapes. One furious scribe branded the Brackens' house "Hotel Carolyn" and took a few other local remodels to task as well. Another declared them "monuments to greed."

It's not just agitated letter-to-the-editor types who object to the trend, either. A woman pushing a stroller down Carolyn Avenue on a breezy spring day casts an unhappy look at the new house. "That thing? It's too big," she says.

Everyone--homeowners, architects, builders, real estate agents--has an opinion about these comprehensive remodeling projects known as teardowns, and they're strident opinions at that. It takes a Zen master, it seems, to remain unruffled when a big house goes in down the street.

From Santa Monica to Chicago's Highland Park, older neighborhoods across the nation are watching stunned as new buyers demolish modest 1,500-square-foot houses and erect small palaces in their stead. Monster Houses, McMansions, blockbusters, starter castles--whatever they're called, they're reviled for their size, for the shadows they cast on other people's property and for their showy, newfangled styles.

In Palm Beach, residents of 8,000-square-foot homes sniff and mutter about a 37,000-square-foot compound going in courtesy of the Matrix hair products fortune. In the Santa Clara Valley the trend has launched splenetic debates in teardown hot spots like Willow Glen, the Rose Garden, Palo Alto, Los Altos, Los Gatos and Cupertino. The houses here are smaller than in East Florida, but the emotions swirling around them are identical: outrage, disbelief, a dash of self-righteousness.

Several of these communities got strict on remodels the first time teardown frenzy came to town in the late '80s and are revisiting their planning codes in response to the current wave. In San Jose, two and a half years after councilmembers Frank Fiscalini and David Pandori began pushing for it, design review is on the horizon. Two weeks ago the planning department released a recommendation for architectural review of new and remodeled houses that exceed certain dimensions. The council is scheduled to vote on the proposal on June 15.

However San Jose and other cities in the valley decide to address the issue, the message is clear: Monster Houses can't hide beneath the beds of sleeping city planning departments anymore. For one thing, they won't fit.

Big Times

IT DOESN'T TAKE an honors thesis in American studies to figure out that we live in an era of Big worship. Big houses, big cars, big pants, big egos, big packages of toilet paper purchased in big warehouse stores. Evidently many people consider this a good thing.

The new houses at Silver Creek are especially big. And even though the freeway walls at Yerba Buena and Highway 101 on the way to these big houses are scrawled with graffiti, they are still selling faster than builders can plant waving banners around them.

Since July Ryland Summit Properties has sold 70 of them at more than a half-million dollars apiece. The three models, "Hillside," "Valley View" and "Summit," range from 2,500 to 3,200 square feet, and they are cleverly alternated and disguised with pink stucco Mediterranean accents or country manor accents or stone siding. Perhaps this fools buyers into thinking they're buying custom homes.

Across Yerba Buena Road, Hillstone ("Estate Living From a New Point of View") and Bel Air ("Eloquence in Design") hawk 3,500- to 4,500-square-foot houses on third- to half-acre lots. These spreads sell for $750,000 to $1 million. They all have three-car garages and curlicues of indeterminate utility and origin decorating their exteriors.

Everything is big in Silver Creek. So why don't people with Big House Love move there?

"They want an instant neighborhood, which you don't get in new subdivisions, but they want the home that fits in Silver Creek," asserts Laura Winter, a petite architectural designer and president of the Shasta Hanchett Neighborhood Association. She calls Willow Glen, the Rose Garden and Shasta Hanchett "the Midwest transplanted to California," friendly places where neighbors feed each other's pets when they're on vacation.

"In those neighborhoods down in Almaden Valley, the houses are dominated by three-car garages," she says. "You see people drive up, hit the garage door opener and disappear inside their houses, and you don't see them anymore. People are realizing the harm that faceless subdivisions have caused over the years."

So now people want the charm of a sweet little neighborhood with 50-year-old sycamore trees and neighbors that wave hello. But as for the two bedrooms and the single bath, the "cozy" dining room and the galley kitchen and the one living room? Why settle for that when they can have five bedrooms, three bathrooms and a custom kitchen with a sink in the island? Why suffer the petite original bathtub or stall shower, even with authentic fixtures, when a triangular Jacuzzi bath is both available and, thanks to soaring stock and generous options, affordable?

house Grande Entrance: This remodeled home on Morse Street in the historic Rose Garden neighborhood makes a big, bold and modern statement some neighbors do not appreciate.

Christopher Gardner

It can't all be blamed on greed. A large-scale remodel is an easy way to add to the value of a house. Even a smaller remodeling project--a new kitchen or bathroom--pumps up a home's resale value by tens of thousands of dollars. Sometimes growing families need an extra bedroom and bath, and remodeling is cheaper than buying new. And when that growing family reaches a certain age, the equity in a lavish remodel will easily float college tuition for 2.8 children.

In this housing market, the exorbitant cost of even the most modest place helps people justify building big. Rick Hartman of Hometec, a Willow Glen architectural firm specializing in remodels and teardowns, puts it this way: "If you spend $700,000 on a piece of property and you're paying $6,000 a month, shouldn't you have a nice family room and kitchen? And the answer is, yeah, they want it."

In the frenzy to maximize their investments, the people in the Monster Houses indelibly alter the character that drew them to the charming neighborhoods in the first place. It seems a uniquely American desire to try to possess beauty, to find it and buy it and live in the middle of it, whether it be in a remote corner of wilderness or in an age-mellowed neighborhood. It also seems a uniquely American blindness not to notice when one's presence disrupts that beauty.

"I don't want to pit neighbor against neighbor," frets Kris Cunningham, president of the Willow Glen Neighborhood Association. "But it's boggling to say you love our neighborhoods and then come in and tear down a beautiful smaller house and build a huge house. Then all of a sudden you have big-little-big-little, and the 'littles' look really little, where before they looked like everything else."

The average house size in the 1950s was 1,000 to 1,200 square feet. Bunk beds, single bathrooms and small living rooms made these floor plans possible. Now the average house size has ballooned to 2,500 square feet. Hartman attributes this to lifestyle changes that have introduced the home office and the large kitchen/family room complex.

"Everybody has a computer, so where are you going to keep it?" he asks rhetorically. "Before 1975, when the oil crunch hit and all that, Mom stayed home and had her sink at the street where she could watch the kids playing in the street. Now kitchens have all moved to the backyard. The streets are deserted now. So now she wants to watch the kids, and that creates a great room that opens onto the kitchen. Nowadays we hang out in the kitchen and great room. We're more casual."

We're also more acquisitive. Garages across the nation are crammed with mountain bikes, snowboards, lawn mowers, old Rollerblades, discarded computers and jet skis. There's not enough room for the one car older garages were designed to harbor, much less for the second or third car.

In bathrooms and kitchens the cabinets are bulging with evidence of the nation's newfound wealth: hair dryers, hot rollers, batteries of lotions and ointments and salves, makeup for daytime, makeup for nighttime, makeup remover. Kitchens host microwaves, bread makers, coffee grinders, juicers, food processors, center island chopping blocks, espresso machines and wine racks to feed Americans' sophisticated tastes without taxing their dwindling time supply.

And where does all this detritus fit?

It doesn't fit in 1940s houses, where the sinks are on pedestals and the medicine cabinets are the size of a nice Sears family portrait. It doesn't fit on the countertops of 1950s houses, built with an electric coffee pot and a toaster in mind. The accessories of modern life demand grandeur--3,000 square feet of it at the very least, preferably wrought in a style that evokes the opulence of some bygone era.

Alice Bracken has her own take on the big-house phenomenon. "People's lives have changed a lot," she muses. "Their lives are more complicated and busier, and when they get home they're looking for refuge and relaxation. This is a very technical term, but there's no 'download time.' "

Taste Not

IT'S BEEN SAID that "ugly" is one of the most powerful words in the English language. Of course, "ugly" is subjective, just as "character" and "charm" are subjective. People inclined to cogitate on such things have been trying to define beauty, ugliness' opposite, for centuries. And one attribute of beauty they usually agree on is proportion.

Critics of Monster Houses frequently accuse them of being disproportionate to the neighborhood or of being oddly proportioned themselves. Laura Winter elaborates on this concept as she inches down several streets in Shasta Hanchett and the Rose Garden in her gray SUV.

She points out Craftsman models, Prairie houses, Tudors and Colonials. Then she pauses in front of a blocky, extensively remodeled house with a grand two-story portal. The facets of a chandelier twinkle through a large half-barrel window above the door.

"It's no particular style whatsoever," she says. "That entryway is stunning, but it's oversized for the streetscape. It would be fine for a place in Saratoga, maybe, on a big house with a big lawn leading up to it, but not here. Taking oversized details and putting them on small houses just doesn't make it."

We pass more houses with elephantiasis of some feature or other, including one behemoth that looks like a section of Versailles. All that's missing is the acres of lawn and gardens--or any lawn or garden to speak of, since the house's bulk spreads to the edges of its lot. We also pass remodels that meet with Winter's approval. These are the ones with second stories set back and articulated side walls that avoid the "big box" effect. Winter peers closely at the windows to see if the muntins--the dividing bars in a window--are wooden or aluminum.

Christopher Gardner

Compounded Problem: Complaints from neighbors about the five auxiliary structures in this ample Monte Sereno residence prompted the city council there to limit large lots to two auxiliary structures unless there is a public hearing for a use permit first. This home sits on the former site of Peake's Dairy, which produced and sold raw milk.

"Sometimes they skimp on the windows," she says. "If you're building a 3,000-square-foot house, you're going to cut corners somewhere. Sometimes they use aluminum, and it has no heft."

Ultimately, she says, reconstructed teardowns that truly fit in with the neighborhood are rare. "When people do additions to get a lot more space, you can never really duplicate that look. They inevitably stick out like a sore thumb."

Mark DeMattei, whose construction firm does a lot of remodels in the Rose Garden and Willow Glen, says people usually come to him with a set of drawings, in which case his job is to try to implement what the homeowners and the architect want. If he's involved during the planning process, he says, he tries to keep the mass down and recommends using as many original materials as possible.

"I may pass on a project if I don't feel that they're doing it correctly," he says. "It's not good for me if I have a whole neighborhood upset."

On the other hand, he points out, "a larger house can really up the neighborhood's value, and that's been shown on the comps." Comparable sales figures indicate a house's market value by averaging the prices of similarly sized and located houses. Sensitive indicators of neighborhood worth, comps can be dragged down by unkempt dumps or pulled up by big, fancy remodels.

Viole McMahon, a Mountain View architect who served on the Los Altos Hills Planning Commission for two years, evenly distributes the blame for "statement houses" that clash with their neighborhoods. She faults both the people who demand them and the people who design them.

"I think it reflects poorly on the homeowner and poorly on the architect," she says, "that their viewpoint is so small that they only ask, 'What can I get for myself?' "

I suggest that many architects probably pander to clients' garish tastes thinking that if they don't do it, someone else will. McMahon dismisses that excuse with a heated burst of hyperbole.

"That's how they built Auschwitz, too," she observes acidly. "The architects' names were on the ovens."

Scary Stories

PLANNING DEPARTMENTS across the valley are having fits attempting to balance the property rights of homeowners with the communal rights of neighborhoods. In a widely publicized example of the problems that bedevil such a tricky enterprise, Ninh Le and Xuan Mai of Santa Clara had to submit four different plans to the three-member architectural review committee in order to put a second story and modern-looking garage on their 1930s house. Each plan had a hearing and each hearing drew enough irate neighbors that the process went on a good six months. Before it was all over, accusations of racism and bad taste were flying in a distinctly unneighborly way.

Santa Clara, home to a stock of 1930s and 1940s neighborhoods, was one of the first cities in the valley to implement architectural review. Now, as San Jose and Cupertino prepare to introduce design review for the first time, Santa Clara is revisiting its review process. Starting this year, neighbors within 100 feet will be notified about every planned second-story addition. The trouble in Santa Clara is the trouble everywhere else: imposing second-story additions make for bird's-eye views of neighbors' bedrooms and long shadows that kill the petunias next door.

The tonier the area, the more stringent the restrictions. Los Gatos designates houses built before 1941 as historic and practically never approves teardowns in those neighborhoods. Saratoga rarely passes a second-story addition and regularly reviews houses larger than 6,000 square feet. Monte Sereno has nixed many proposals, but last December it met a new animal when a compound sprang up that included a two-story house and five auxiliary structures: movie house, garage, pool house, workshop and mother-in-law house. Councilmembers quickly amended the code to limit the number of auxiliary buildings to two.

On the Peninsula, where neighborhood protection has been a priority for decades, things are shaping up in interesting ways.

Los Altos has had a 15-member design review committee since 1983. In spite of tough standards that limit house sizes to 35 percent of lot area, neighborhood compatibility and privacy issues have become a problem. Says planning director Larry Tong, "It kind of boils down to concern regarding new two-story units in areas that are predominantly one-story," he says. A task force is working on new guidelines for the design review committee.

Palo Alto implemented voluntary guidelines for remodels in the late '80s but was rudely awakened from its trustful slumber in 1996 when a Craftsman designed by Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan and a popular Victorian nicknamed Big Blue were demolished. Immediately a moratorium went into effect and interim regulations were established to protect the pre-1940s neighborhoods of Old Palo Alto. Sadly, this left postwar south Palo Alto scrambling to protect its ranch-style neighborhoods from the faux Mediterranean hordes. Some of the neighborhoods got creative and resurrected old planning criteria that prohibit second stories, but others weren't so lucky. On June 7 the council will vote on a permanent historic preservation ordinance, but the issue of design review remains unaddressed, and south Palo Alto will likely remain on its own.

house Edifice Complex: The sleepy Carolyn Street neighborhood has endured months of construction to make way for this three-story giant, which casts its shadow in a block of smaller homes that are 60 and 70 years old.

Christopher Gardner

High, Neighbor!

IT WAS ONLY a matter of time before architectural review met a backlash in the communities where it started. On the Peninsula, local birthplace of architectural control, it's already begun, and Los Altos Hills is on its cutting edge.

Since the 1960s the five-member planning commission has scrutinized plans for every house built in that plush rural community, defending the town's bucolic image against houses that are too big, too modern or too showy. A house's hilltop silhouette is taken into consideration: no monsters on ridgelines. A color board ensures that no Pepto-Bismol-hued manse pollutes the approved earth-toned palette of browns, modest rose and restrained greens that dots the hills, one per acre. (Unfortunately for those who delight in absurdity, the color board is, literally, a posterboard sign hanging in the planning department hallway, not a committee of grave citizens debating the merits of burnt sienna and seafoam green.) In its review sessions the planning commission debates such details as the placement of skylights, outdoor lights and windows, all of which can mar the ambiance of starry evenings for neighbors who appreciate the country darkness.

Few communities can afford this kind of vigilance. But things are different in Los Altos Hills, a town that fled the county's jurisdiction in the '50s precisely because it wanted to preserve its roomy one-acre lots. As city planner Curtis Williams says, "Ninety percent of our reason for being is to review development proposals."

Though the conformation of its planning commission changes every few years--the members are council appointees--Los Altos Hills has traditionally been so strict that residents are now asking for more wiggle room. Anyone planning to build or remodel a house in Los Altos Hills receives a 37-page booklet of suggestions on how to sensitively place the house in its environment. Then the builder must pass three stages of review: by staff, by the planning commission and by the city council. Councilmember Toni Casey, who ran on a property-rights ticket with Steve Finn in November, spearheaded a recent effort to fast-track the approval procedure.

"It's been far too subjective," she contends. "It's like playing Russian roulette if you're trying to remodel. It can depend on who you live next to."

Viole McMahon, the architect who served on the Los Altos Hills planning commission in 1996 and 1997, disdains ill-conceived houses. But she also sympathizes to some degree with property-rights advocates.

"There's always the tug of war between property rights versus the community and neighborhood preservation," she says. "It's aggravated when people are paying $1 million for an empty lot. You can see where the homeowner says, 'My God, don't tell me whether my lights can or can't shine up in the trees, or whether I can have an illuminated skylight.' "

Many an architect will be pleased to hear that Los Altos Hills is diluting its stringent solution to the Monster House problem, among them Hometec's Rick Hartman. Although he supports limits on floor-area ratios (the ratio of a house's square-footage to its lot size), he finds some planning commissions not just vigilant but downright meddlesome. Of Woodside he says simply, "Notorious." On Saratoga: "Unfair. They'll spend an hour and a half arguing over a fence that's 6 inches too tall." And once in Los Gatos, he says, the commission insisted on a particular window site--even though it happened to be in a walk-in closet.

In the bubbling cauldron of architectural review, the issue boils down to one of control. Individuals don't want to cede it to government and neighborhoods don't want to cede it to individuals. At stake are notions of inalienable rights--and Americans take their rights very seriously.

"Your house is the only place in your life, outside of your car, maybe, where you have complete control," McMahon says. "So I can see where they're coming from."

Which remark begs the question: Since when was complete control over anything a fundamental right?

Boxy Rebellion

TRADITIONALLY WEALTHY communities aren't alone in their battle against the Titan houses. Cupertino, land of the modest ranch house, just approved new restrictions on remodels that will necessitate design review for most two-story structures. The new rules will limit outside wall heights and require offset second stories to avoid boxiness. They will also, Hartman points out disapprovingly, prohibit two-story Colonials, Federals and Georgia manors, venerated big-box styles all.

Until now San Jose's policy on remodels has been hands off as long as homeowners observe setbacks: five feet on the sides and 25 feet in front and back. Alterations to houses on the city's historic inventory have had to pass review, and of course planned developments like those in Evergreen must adhere to a plan. But otherwise almost anything flies. In most other communities, tearing down 50 percent of a house constitutes a demolition, but all a builder in San Jose has to do in order to avoid the special-use demolition permit fees and the tax assessment disadvantage of having built a brand-new home is to leave one wall standing. And that's what many property owners do.

At last the subject known in the city's planning department as the "too big/too different issue" is coming to a head. Two weeks ago the planning department released a draft ordinance proposing design review for buildings, both new and remodeled, that meet certain criteria. Anything over 3,000 square feet will undergo design review, as will any building that takes up more than 35 percent of a lot, not including the garage. Additions resulting in a square footage increase of 50 percent, occurring within 20 feet of the front setback or involving the removal of half the roof rafters or outside walls will also come under review.

The City Council is scheduled to approve the proposal on June 15. That date could be postponed if the issue generates as much debate in San Jose as it has everywhere else. In Cupertino the process, which began 14 months ago, was only resolved on April 5.

While policymakers dither, the bulldozers keep rumbling. Two weeks ago at least four special-use permits for demolition were pending in Willow Glen alone. The neighbors who live within 300 feet of these residences got their notices already and are holding their breath, hoping a big box doesn't go up next door and turn their sunny, private backyards into semi-public places landscaped in plants found in the "shade to partial shade" part of the nursery.

There must have been a time when people living in prewar bungalows slowed their Studebakers down to get a good look at the ranch-style tract homes being built in enclaves all over the valley. They probably shook their heads and clucked their tongues about the evils of identical houses, and how crass it was to put the garage out front where everyone could see into it when it was open. They probably wondered where the porches were.

Neighborhoods, like houses, trends and governments, have life cycles. It probably wouldn't be wrong to say that what's happening to small neighborhoods in the valley and elsewhere in the country is inevitable. We are, after all, enjoying unprecedented wealth: the stock market topped 10,000 points last month, we have the lowest unemployment in decades and it seems there's no limit to the money that can be made on the Internet. Those of us living in Silicon Valley are at ground zero of this century's Gold Rush.

So was it inevitable that this new wealth would find a way to leave its footprint on the planet?

You bet. The real question is, did it have to be so ugly?

[ San Jose | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

From the April 15-21, 1999 issue of Metro.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

Foreclosures - Real Estate Investing
San Jose.com Real Estate