Palo Alto Preserves Historic Homes; Homeowners Benefit Too

by David Burckhard

While more famous as the center of contemporary, high-tech achievements, Palo Alto is also rich in local history. Nothing better demonstrates that than the diverse and remarkable collection of its iconic homes. Locals and soon-to-be locals are fortunate that the presence of historically significant residences provide character and a sense of place, integrity, and value to their communities. Once regarded as roadblocks to development, no small number of these structures have been considered for demolition or rebuilding into more contemporary housing. Considering that so many of these landmark homes continue to stand, however, is no accident. Preservation in the form of laws and advocacy organizations have thwarted destruction of these artifacts and allowed history to live on, which has resulted in wonderful dwellings that owners can live in.

Local historical preservation came into its own when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed The National Preservation Act of 1966, establishing the National Register of Historic Places. In doing so, he inspired communities to protect local historic vestiges. Palo Alto was a leader in recognizing and assuring protection of many of its historically significant structures and places. These efforts culminated with the formation of the Palo Alto Stanford (PAST) Heritage in 1987. Eventually, PAST created a method of characterizing buildings including residences into four categories:

Category 1: An “Exceptional Building” of pre-eminent national or state importance. These buildings are meritorious works of the best architects, outstanding examples of a specific architectural style, or illustrate stylistic development of architecture in the United States.

Category 2:  A “Major Building” of regional importance. These buildings are meritorious works of the best architects, outstanding examples of a specific architectural style, or illustrate stylistic development of architecture in the state or region.

Category 3 and 4:  A “Contributing Building” which is a good local example of an architectural style and relates to the character of a neighborhood grouping in scale, materials, proportion or other factors.

Today, almost 400 homes and locations make up the Palo Alto Historic Inventory. Nearly all are not just remarkable for their longevity but also for their authenticity, period style, and craftsmanship that allowed them to endure for as long as they have. Notably, the architectural diversity of these venerable edifices were honored at this year’s PAST Preservation Awards, which highlighted a Colonial Revival/Queen Anne, an Italian Renaissance multi-unit, and a Spanish Eclectic at Stanford. But with the graces of a historic home also come responsibility and benefits. While living in a period-appropriate and historic home can be rewarding in itself, the state of California could, in essence, pay you to maintain its original heritage by considerably reducing your property tax in exchange for your efforts to preserve the property under certain guidelines.

In addition to individual structures receiving historic status, Palo Alto boasts four districts listed in the National Register of Historic Places which includes the Professorville Historic District, Ramona Street Architectural District, Green Gables Historic District, and Greenmeadow Historic District. You can participate in hosted or self-guided tours that visit a number of the city’s historic specimens under the guidance of PAST.

Mills Act

Palo Alto owners of historic residences are or may be eligible for considerable property tax breaks if they meet qualifications according to a state law. California is determined to honor its architectural heritage and incentivizes owners monetarily in a law that protects structures. According to California’s Office of Historic Preservation, the Mills Act “is the single most important economic incentive program in California for the restoration and preservation of qualified historic buildings.” While applying to all of California, the Mills Act contracts are between the property owner and the local government that grants the tax abatement.

Each local government establishes its own criteria including how many contracts it will let in, the terms of the contract, and the application procedures. In Palo Alto, owners who wish to participate in the Mills Act program must petition the city’s Historic Resources Board, HRB, individually negotiate, and are typically required to do the following:

  1. Restore or rehabilitate the historic property, if necessary;
  2. Agree to maintain its character; and
  3. Use it in a manner compatible with its historic characteristics.

All work, according to the HRB, must conform to the rules and regulations of California’s Office of Historic Preservation, including compliance with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and the State Historic Building Code.

Requirements to meet the Mills Act may initially seem daunting, but the hundreds of participating homeowners in Palo Alto have discovered greater value in their owner experience and greater real value in their homes.