Pleasanton Weekly

News - April 1, 2011

Planners talk about historic homes

Commission decides preservation ordinance not needed

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

The preservation of old homes in Pleasanton was discussed in a public hearing at the Planning Commission's March 8 meeting. The informal workshop began with Brian Dolan, director of Community Development, going over existing polices, including parts of the Pleasanton General Plan, the Downtown Specific Plan and the Downtown Design Guidelines.

"You're going to find a thread of strong policy support of downtown historic preservation," Dolan said.

"We have tools that could be updated pretty easily," he also noted.

The Downtown Specific Plan, dated March 5, 2002, states as historic objectives to complete an inventory of resources; to prevent demolition of resources that can be reasonably reserved; to ensure that new buildings and modifications are compatible with the tradition character; and to implement incentives to help preserve the area's history.

"Relocation is a theme you'll find but it is not a viable solution," Dolan said. "There are not a lot of lots to take them."

He also warned that policies may not be as simple as they first appear, for instance, the idea that a building can be torn down if the cost to rehabilitate exceeds 50 percent of its value.

"It's a good attempt but very imperfect system," Dolan said. "It needs an assessor, a contractor to determine the cost."

Also planning staff has to be able to evaluate whether the cost is valid.

"That isn't something that we do," Dolan added. "I'm a little uncomfortable using it."

Similarly, he said there is no law defining "demolition."

"A demolition plan can show 50 percent staying, then they look at the studs, they're full of dry rot," he gave as an example.

The Downtown Specific Plan also directs that modification to exteriors of buildings more than 50 years old must match the original building.

"People have misinterpreted this," Dolan said. "I think it's OK to make it dramatically different. ... In most cases we can help a client find a solution."

Members of the public spoke to say they've had problems and conflicting requirements to make renovations. Others who live in historic homes asked to not make regulations more onerous.

"I've owned two historic homes in Pleasanton, I've lived here 28 years," said Linda Garbarino, president of the Pleasanton Heritage Association. "I feel I don't own my home --it belongs to the people of Pleasanton."

She noted that improving and maintaining a home, like painting the Golden Gate Bridge, is a never-ending process. She said guidelines should help people make decisions about what goes into their homes.

"Is it important to distinguish between 'old historic homes' and 'old homes'?" Commissioner Arne Olson asked Garbarino.

"It's a disclosure issue," she answered. "How do you draw the line? Some homes, nobody important lived there."

She added that if an older home is torn down, the house built on the lot should be a "reasonable home," not a "Disneyland home."

"An ordinance to me is punitive," she said. "We need guidelines that are clearer and have transparency."

Realtor Lou Rivara said he'd never heard of any type of disclosure when people buy homes in downtown historic neighborhoods.

"What makes it a beautiful place to be isn't just history," he said. "The Firehouse Arts Center design is very good but it's not history, but it's a place we share. Don't be locked into history."

He said the city needs to look for ways to enhance downtown that will improve the experience of people living here or visiting.

"I've been involved in design for years and years and I'm deeply, deeply, deeply concerned about the direction we're going," said Realtor Margene Rivara, who lives in a historic home on St. Mary Street that has a large addition.

She said she believes in the right of the property owners and that the city should not add layer after layer to regulations for designs. She added that new ideas are important to keep the city interesting and exciting.

"The first rule of public policy is, 'Don't make things worse,'" said downtown land use lawyer Peter MacDonald.

"There is no significant historical issue not already addressed," he said, adding that it would be impossible to come up with black and white rules. "There is no way to get around having to exercise judgment."

He also said it is important to look at all the issues downtown, including economic vitality, rather than narrowly focusing on history.

Architect historian Charles Huff spoke in favor of redefining existing guidelines rather than writing a new historic preservation ordinance. He questioned what an ordinance might mean in terms of creativity and how to keep rules clear to follow.

"How do we define landmark houses and what kind of restrictions do we put on them?" he asked.

He noted that the more restrictions, the harder renovations are to do, plus he questioned what new rules would mean in terms of staff time.

"It's our intent not to handcuff anyone but to clear up bureaucracy," said Commissioner Phil Blank.

Resident Scott Colson identified himself as an architect who moved to Pleasanton from San Francisco a year ago.

"It's important that we preserve the significant fabric that is here ... then allow for new things to occur," he said. "Some old things are in the way of something fresh and new."

"Do we fossilize or create vitality?" he asked, adding that preservation means dealing with a lot of subjectivity.

Commissioner Jerry Pentin said it doesn't look like the system is broken, but that the policies just need updating. Olson agreed that enough guidelines have been written and perhaps it needs to be more defined.

But Commissioner Blank referred to one speaker who said it had taken up to two years to get projects approved.

"I think the system is broken, we heard it tonight," Blank said. "Perhaps we broke it by creating so much vagueness."

Commissioner Jennifer Pearce said historic preservation is critical to the town as is talking about what is important to Pleasanton as a community.

"I'm excited we're starting this conversation," she said.

"I don't support an ordinance at this point," said Commission President Kathy Narum, noting that actions in the Downtown Specific Plan were never taken.

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