Manhattanize Palo Alto

A couple of decades after HP’s birth, as the tech industry began to take root, famed developer Joseph Eichler, who believed that good design should be democratic, studded the city with affordable homes that, at the time, were priced to move. He used innovative and imaginative architects to bring roughly 2,700 homes with crisp lines and a focus on the outdoors to the working class. These ticky-tacky structures were part of America’s post-war boom, and helped populate the Bay Area through a unique triangulation of high style and build-by-the-numbers ease at friendly prices.

As creative minds thrived in Palo Alto, Eichler’s homes housed Silicon Valley’s first wave. They even helped germinate the world’s biggest tech company. Steve Wozniak, Apple’s co-founder, grew up in an Eichler in Sunnyvale. The late Steve Jobs, meanwhile, credited Eichler for inspiring him to create Apple’s well-designed products for the mass market.

“I love it when you can bring really great design and simple capability to something that doesn’t cost much,” he said of Eichler’s homes in Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs.” “It was the original vision for Apple. That’s what we tried to do with the first Mac.” (Although Jobs assumed he had lived in an Eichler growing up in Mountain View, his family’s Mid-Century Modern was determined to be a lookalike by a competing developer, which Eichler fans call a “Likeler.”)

These days, however, the betrayal of Eichler’s affordable and stylish vision really slaps you in the face the moment you step off the train in Palo Alto. Two mid-rise Amazon buildings, emblazoned with the $3.1 billion company’s logo, confront you as you enter the city’s main drag. A slew of boutique venture capitalist firms, with villainous-sounding names like Bain Capital or Omers Ventures, sprout not far away.

What you won’t find is enough housing.

Eichler’s Mid-Century Modern homes, prized for their vaulted ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows, now regularly fetch upward of $2.5 million. In an acutely perverse way, Eichler’s homes are still affordable, relatively speaking; The median home price in Palo Alto today is $3.5 million, according to June 2021 Redfin estimates. A lucrative investment for the lucky few who can afford it.

The culprit? During an era of unfettered tech innovation and cash flow, the city barely increased its housing stock. From 2004, when a puerile Mark Zuckerberg rented a home on La Jennifer Way during the nascent days of “the Facebook,” up until today, scant homes have been built for an increasing workforce. Between 2010 and 2018 Palo Alto’s jarring jobs-to-housing ratio was 16:1, with 20,475 jobs added, but only 1,269 homes permitted, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. (The jobs-to-housing ratio is grim across the Bay Area.)

The city’s egregious lack of shelter has even prompted its own leaders to flee for higher ground: In 2016, Kate Vershov Downing, a former Palo Alto planning and transportation commissioner, quit her job alleging a stubborn City Council and skyrocketing rental prices that she and her family could no longer afford.

As former mayor Eric Filseth said in 2020: “You can’t have a functional community comprised only of software engineers and patent attorneys.”

Don’t blame the tech industry for Palo Alto’s enforced dearth of housing; that would be as cliche as it would be wrong.

“Palo Alto has a small group of very wealthy, very powerful people that do not want to see growth,” says Angie Evans, executive director of Palo Alto Forward, a housing advocacy group. “If you go to a playground and chat with parents and grandparents, most people here want to see a living, growing city where we change alongside the needs of the community.”

Evans, who lives two blocks away from the Zuckerberg family in the Crescent Park neighborhood, points to a well-moneyed group that ties together anti-housing coteries Embarcadero Institute, Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning and United Neighbors. (Word to the wise: Groups using such jargon as “sensible” or “united” in their names are usually the opposite.)

“The strongest force pushing back against new housing in Palo Alto is what’s known as the ‘residentialist’ faction,” says Jordan Grimes, a Peninsula housing advocate whose Twitter breakdowns of NIMBY meetings are as legendary as they are informative. (One noteworthy gripe was from a Palo Altan who complained that new housing would bump up traffic, and thus increase the time it takes to get to her second home in Lake Tahoe.) Said housing group of purported sensibility has helped elect the city’s current crop of council members, which includes a real estate agent as well as its mayor, a former Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning member.

It’s also important to not let Stanford University, which has one of the largest campuses in the world, off the hook. Stanford Research Park, created in 1951, led to the creation of VMware, Tesla and SAP Labs, among other tech firms, creating tens of thousands of jobs while doing almost nothing in terms of housing creation. The school’s general lot 8, a vast moat of land and a smattering of trees at the university’s north entrance, could easily provide space for dire housing.

There is an answer to this quandary: Palo Alto needs to return to its roots as a housing innovator

It’s time to Manhattanize Palo Alto. That’s right, Manhattanize, the oft-used West Coast slur that should be embraced and enforced in the Valley.

By mandating residential mid and high-rises, Palo Alto can become ground zero for housing that goes above — way above — its puny 50-foot ceiling for new developments, a law enacted in the early 1970s to allegedly preserve quality of life. Get rid of all parking requirements, an outdated mandate from 1951. Affix fees on new commercial builders to fund affordable housing. And increase the puny 20% affordable housing requirement while you’re at it.

Lydia Kou, the aforementioned Realtor and a self-described “moderate-growth” City Council member, told me, “It’s simplistic thinking to think it’s okay to just start building. It’s not sensible; it’s just rhetoric.”

But even Eichler was prone to the occasional high-rise, like the 315-foot Summit atop Russian Hill, noted for its flared concrete shaft. One of the Bay Area’s best living designers, Stanley Saitowiz, could do wonders given a skyscraper project in Palo Alto.

“I don’t care that much about how tall a building is or the facade,” Evans says. “I care about whether my kids are able to grow up in a place that embraces racial and economic diversity and that prioritizes the people most impacted by our problems.”

As mandated by the Association of Bay Area Governments, the Bay Area as a whole has to change its zoning to allow construction of 441,000 new homes from 2023 to 2031.

It’s time to build your share, Palo Altans. You want the envious sobriquet “the birthplace of Silicon Valley”? Then act like it. Turn your skyline into glorious habitable towers that reach beyond the stars.

And don’t go anywhere, Cupertino. You’re next.

Brock Keeling is an award-winning writer who covers California.

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