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Publication Date: Friday, July 12, 2002

@pullquote:City Attorney Michael Martello alleges the family is using Douglas's wheelchair as a "guise" to create rental units on the land.
@pullquote:"From the outside, it looks great. From the inside, it's a piece of garbage. "It's a piece of junk."

Douglas Byer

Historical tinder box Historical tinder box (July 12, 2002)

Old house flashpoint of new controversy

By Candice Shih and Bill D'Agostino

Douglas Byer has a goal: to live in a big, comfortable house which is wheelchair-accessible.

The City of Mountain View also has a goal: to preserve relics of Mountain View's history.

But because Byer wants to demolish the historical house on his property to build his dream house, someone will have to go home empty-handed.

Byer's application to raze his house is the first by an owner of a historically preserved property since the passage of the city's two-year historical preservation ordinance.

In April, the city council adopted the ordinance which requires owners of 94 historically significant houses to apply for permits if they plan to make major changes to them or demolish them.

Almost a year prior to the law's passage, the Byer family began making plans to demolish the 1908 house at 340 Palo Alto Ave. which they bought for about $1.25 million. They want to build a house for Douglas, 32, who has been wheelchair-bound since a 1984 car accident.

The Byers say the current house, with an elevated first story and narrow doorways, is not handicapped accessible.

Consequently Byer, who lives across the street from the property with his brother in a smaller house, has planned to build two mirror-image homes on the lot, which is about twice the size of nearby lots.

He would live in the bottom story of one of the houses while relatives and/or caregivers would live upstairs and in the other home.

The proposed houses have elevators and back door ramps for Byer. In addition, he wants to build a basement with a fitness area that has a separate entrance for a physical therapist to enter.

"You want to build both homes for the future," said Bill Bocook, the architect for the Byers. "The way Doug lives today may not be the way he lives in the future."

But City Attorney Michael Martello doesn't believe the Byers actually want to tear down the historic property to create a dream home.

Noting that the proposed buildings contain bathrooms, kitchens and laundry facilities on each floor, Martello alleges the family is using Douglas's wheelchair as a "guise" to create rental units on the land.

"I don't blame them," Martello said, "but they're in the wrong zone."

Bob Byer, Douglas's father, said they had worked with the city on their design and made sure it complied with city codes. However, in a recent meeting with the city's development review committee, the design was met with disapproval.

"It has a commercial feeling rather than residential," said Linda Poncini, an architectural consultant to the city. "It's not oriented to the front of the street. It tends to form a compound."

But before the Byers consider modifying their design, they must first secure a permit to demolish the existing house.

The house -- which is featured in the 1979 book "Now and Then: Exploring Mountain View's Architectural Heritage" -- recently made it onto the Mountain View Register of Historical Resources, a list of the 94 properties which some have criticized as being arbitrary.

That means the Byers' plans for demolition must face a city council vote, tentatively scheduled for August 6.

The house is not particularly old for an old house, it is not a site of a historic event, and it didn't house significant figures in Mountain View history.

But the ordinance was passed in order to preserve the character and heritage of the city and strengthen civic pride. There are architects and local residents who believe that 340 Palo Alto Ave. does this through its architectural features.

According to Carey & Co., a San Francisco architectural firm which assessed the property, the farmhouse-style home "displays architectural features distinctive of its period and high artistic values relative to other California residential architecture and within the local context."

The firm also determined that while the house at 340 Palo Alto Ave. does not meet the criteria to be on the National Register of Historic Places, it could be a candidate for the California Register of Historic Resources.

The house, with a large front porch, bay windows, and a complex roof system, was built in the "Vernacular Eclectic" style which combines several styles, according to the assessors. It features the Queen Anne style most prominently.

Admirers of the house also appreciate its street-side wrought iron gate which is original to the house.

Council member Rosemary Stasek, who favored the historical ordinance and is familiar with the inside and outside of the house, claims it's "absolutely lovely" and "enormously valuable."

Karen Willemsen, a former Voice reporter, lived in the bottom story with her husband Matthew Walker from June 2000 to June 2001.

"It was big, beautiful and we loved it," said Willemsen. "I think it has huge historical value. I'm a believer in preserving things like that."

Walker said he thinks it is representative of homes in the Old Mountain View neighborhood. The city agrees.

"From our standpoint, you can't remove that house because it's significant," Mary Fulford, the city's deputy zoning administrator, told the Byer family.

Nonetheless, the house does not have an admirer in Douglas Byer.

"From the outside, it looks great. From the inside, it's a piece of garbage," he said. "It's a piece of junk."

"People think it's very easy just to save the house. They don't live in it. They don't have to deal with certain things that have to be repaired," said Susi Guzsella, the current resident and Byer's aunt.

Carey & Co. determined that the house has suffered from water damage, foundation settlement, and a vulnerability to deterioration in some areas, but it also decided that it's generally in good condition.

According to Bob Byer, if the family is denied the permit to demolish the house, it may claim under the "hardship" section of the ordinance which provides for certain exceptions.

Both the Byers and the city are thinking about alternatives, too. The Byers suggested that the city relocate the house to Shoreline Park next to the Rengstorff house.

And, as an alternative, the city suggested the Byers redivide the lot around the house and develop the other side for Douglas.

The Byers and the zoning administrator were scheduled to meet on Wednesday. The zoning administrator will be making a recommendation regarding the permit to city council.


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