Preserving our past
Task force studying how to balance Pleasanton's heritage and owners' rights
When Gerald Hodnefield wanted to renovate the 1865 home he purchased on Second Street, he knew he would have to go through the city's planning process. The home was first occupied by the first train station master when the railroad came to town, Hodnefield said.
"It took two years to get building permits, and it took another year to do the modifications," he recalled. "The house was 1,000 square feet originally, then between 1920 and 1930, two wings were added. Because this was done back in the '20s and '30s it fell within the 50-year rule."
Although Hodnefield tried to salvage the additions, which had used wood from an old barn, the building inspector would not approve the work.
Hodnefield went through the same process with his daughter when she wanted to tear down her home on Spring Street, which he said was probably built in the late 1930s.
"There was not really much to save but the city Planning Department said you can't tear it down until a historical study was done," Hodnefield said.
When Pleasanton began to form a Historic Preservation Task Force in 2011 at the urging of the Planning Commission, which felt it needed clearer guidelines to make decisions when owners wanted to make changes to old homes, Hodnefield was among the first to apply.
"Both of these projects were very frustrating to get through the Planning Department of the city offices," Hodnefield said. "Because I had such a hard experience, and talking to neighbors who experienced the same, I joined the task force with the intent to simplify things and make them more user-friendly. To change the restrictive aspects of the Planning Department."
Brian Dolan, director of Community Development, said there has been a mixed reaction to the city's level of success in saving old buildings and permitting changes.
"Some think the city's not doing enough if we've allowed old homes to be demolished to allow something new," he said, while others think owners should be free to do whatever they want to their properties.
"If it were easy we wouldn't need a task force," Dolan said.
In November 2011 the City Council confirmed seven task force members: Planning Commissioners Phil Blank and Jennifer Pearce, and residents Emilie Cruzan, Linda Garbarino, Hodnefield, Paul Martin and Bonnie Krichbaum.
Martin also said he joined because of his disappointments when going through the permitting process to renovate an old house. Garbarino and Krichbaum, too, live in historic homes and are on the board of the Pleasanton Heritage Association, which supports "the preservation of our heritage neighborhoods and buildings that define the character of Pleasanton." Cruzan, who lives near Old Stanley Boulevard, said she's noticed the old houses disappearing on Stanley, one by one.
Garbarino said the city was on a good pathway for historic preservation in 2000, then during the next 10-year period things started to deteriorate.
"We started to see the demolition of homes, and new homes that did not fit in historical neighborhoods," she said. "They might have been good in Vintage Hills or Ruby Hill but it was as though someone lost sight of preserving what we had."
Garbarino noted that the city developed Downtown Design Guidelines in 2001, with one section for commercial buildings and the other for residential.
"The city works closely with the Pleasanton Downtown Association and they have good working communications for following guidelines," Garbarino said. "They have good articulation but that's not happening between the city and the residents."
She noted that in studying how other cities have managed historic regulations, they found that sometimes areas opt out then return because they want the protections.
The Pleasanton task force began meeting in February 2012 and revisited the relevant portions of the Pleasanton Downtown Specific Plan, including its design and historic guidelines. The idea was for the group to come up with a set of standards for the buildings and neighborhoods that would keep downtown's historic character.
"Exactly what's to be implemented by the task force is not yet determined," said Dolan. "It could be as modest as an amendment to the Downtown Design Guidelines that are called for and referenced in the Downtown Specific Plan. Or possibly an ordinance could be created."
A Historic Preservation Workshop was held in the large meeting room at the library for residents of the old neighborhoods on Jan. 31 so they could learn about the efforts of the task force and fill out a survey on the direction they'd like to see it take.
At the workshop, Dolan shared information about a Historical Context Report done for the city in September by Katherine Petrin of Architectural Resources Group Inc. of San Francisco.
This 124-page document helps identify and evaluate historic resources, traces Pleasanton's history from the Native California settlements beginning in 10,000 B.C., through the Spanish and Mexican settlement from 1797-1848 to the development of the early town, the coming of the Western Pacific Railroad from 1860-70 and beyond. It covers transportation, agriculture, commercial and industrial development as well as residential, civic, religious and institutional development from the 1860s to the 1970s, and immigration. Find it online at www.ci.pleasanton.ca.us/pdf/Pleasanton_Context_Statement-DRAFT.pdf.
There have been four main components of the work of the task force, Dolan explained at the workshop:
1. Establishing a local historical district, reviewing the history of town, and looking at the approaches of other cities and the state Office of Historic Preservation;
2. The Historic Context Document, that addresses which structures are important to preserve;
3. The definition of demolition, which can be approached in many different ways; and
4. The city's design review authority to enforce policies.
Pleasanton does have policies for new structures being proposed for historic neighborhoods, Dolan said.
"We try to get you to match what's there so it's compatible, it doesn't stand out," he said. "There are a lot of different opinions to reconcile on that issue."
Dolan also noted that historic preservation has costs for the homeowner or the city.
"We have to adopt some kind of approach," he said. "We had a list of incentives, but they were probably not realistic."
At the workshop, residents were presented with a survey to gather their views on the preservation issues. It asked whether people supported the creation of a historic district and what the boundaries should be; what the time frame should be for historic buildings; how to define "demolition"; when the city's design review authority should be expanded to help maintain the historic character downtown; and if review processes should be free to residents.
The survey also asked opinions about the Mills Act, which allows a city to enter into contracts with owners of historic resources. Owners restore their properties and, in exchange, cities reduce their property tax.
Dolan said some people get mathematical when defining the term "demolish." Others want to allow flexibility.
"Flexibility is beautiful thing to some people but a curse to others," he said.
Additions to properties have been another problem, he said. In some neighborhoods, the "does anybody care" rule can be applied, but downtown and in the historic district people do care.
"Not all homes are historic but what you do to them does affect the whole neighborhood," Dolan pointed out.
Pleasanton has a regulation that the city will not deal with the first floor of residences but this is aimed at subdivisions where only second-story additions might negatively impact neighbors with issues of privacy and aesthetics.
The city has not refused additions to older homes, Dolan noted, because historically properties did have additions and alterations. The best example of keeping a building's historic character while altering it considerably and changing its purpose is the Firehouse Arts Center, he said.
Local changes are governed by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), passed in 1970.
"CEQA address historical residences," Dolan explained. "If something is going to adversely affect a historical residence, it is a significant impact."
A report would have to be done before alterations to fully disclose the proposed changes and why they should be done.
Questions arise mainly for residences, Dolan said.
"Businesses come up occasionally but there have not been a lot of commercial projects in the last five years," he said, noting that the latest renovation of the Pleasanton Hotel was consistent with Department of Interior guidelines.
Hodnefield distinguishes between a home that is merely old and one that is historic.
"My effort is to try to recognize truly historic homes that are deserving of preservation," he said. "But the problem with where we are right now is that if you are in the historical district, you have to go through all these hoops even if the home is of no significance."
"My problem with all this is that it is all so subjective," he added.
He suggested homes that homes built before 1900 are historic, and those after 1940 are not.
"From 1900-1940, they probably deserve some sort of survey by someone with expertise as to whether they're historical or architecturally significant."
Hodnefield differentiated two schools of thought on what makes a home historic.
"One is headed by the Pleasanton Heritage Association. They are at the Planning Commission meetings and are very vocal," he said. "The other group says we don't need any rules or regulations."
"I'm in the middle group," he added. "I want to make it easy but still preserve the spirit of what we're trying to accomplish."
Garbarino would like to see the city designate or hire a point person who understands historic architecture and can advise people who are about to renovate a historic home, using the guidelines that come out of the task force.
"Then when people walk in the door, if they are going to buy, restore or add a new house in a historic neighborhood, they can get a sense of what the expectations are," Garbarino said.
The city needs to have a respect for its historic homes, she said, and regulate the guidelines.
"When the city defaults on its responsibilities, citizens are pitted against one another," she said. "That is ugly and it should not happen. Things should be solved at the desk in the Planning Department."
"A Realtor in town told me, 'If I know ahead of time, if the city does a good job communicating, then people will have a better sense of what they can or cannot do,'" Garbarino said. "It's all about communication."
"I hope something positive comes of this," Hodnefield said. "I think all of us on the task force have an open mind."
Dolan will make a presentation of the work of the Historic Preservation Task Force at a City Council meeting soon, to check in with its progress and findings.
The surveys were due Feb. 7, and 43 were turned in. Copies can be found online at www.ci.pleasanton.ca.us/pdf/SurveyResponses.pdf.
"Fifty percent were in favor of the direction the task force is going, and 50% were opposed to doing anything," Dolan said. "Do we need changes? The answer may be no."
"Some people are afraid of extra regulations and they attract others," he added. "But it's generally accepted that a historic designation will have a positive impact on property values."