The neighbors' first plan was to buy a strip of land between their homes and the development from the church. But the church wouldn't agree. But there was one hope. Seven years before, the city had created its first single-story overlay zone—coincidentally, perhaps, also in an Eichler neighborhood. The issue on Wright Avenue wasn't a new development. Residents demanded help after an Eichler was demolished and replaced with a two-story monster.
In creating the zone, the city also created an overlay zoning that could be applied to other neighborhoods—as needed and at the discretion of the city. But success in winning the overlay was far from assured.
The Sheas, Joe Conley, Kathy McGuire, Chaoyang and Li Li Zheng, and other volunteers needed to convince 55 percent of the neighborhood to back the single-story overlay. They needed to raise nearly $15,000 for the filing fee. They had to win over planning staff, the planning commission, and the city council.
"It was remarkably easy to build community support," Suzanne says. "Folks were so supportive." Eighty percent of the Eichlers signed a petition in favor, and no one in the neighborhood fought the plan. And, says Suzanne, "a very significant fraction" of neighbors ponied up for the filing fee.
They never did win over the planning staff, which argued that Sunnyvale needed more housing, and pushed that high-density was the way to go. Planning staff suggested that clever placement of windows could preserve privacy in the Eichlers.
But neighbors did better with planning commissioners and council members, thanks to well-organized presentations that made clear how Eichlers differ from standard ranches thanks to their walls of glass.
One slide at their presentation showed Joe Conley and family at home during an evening, just as residents of the new homes would view them. Joe was holding a pizza and waving through the glass at his new, voyeuristic neighbors. "That was really a knockout picture," says Suzanne Mills, Suzanne Shea's mother.
What clinched it, Pat Shea says, was a compromise proposed at a meeting by planning commissioner Laura Babcock. Impose the single-story zone on all the Eichler homes, but only on a portion of the new homes. "It was the fact that the planning commission came up with a compromise that got the ball rolling," he says.
Not everyone agrees. "I thought it was a bad deal," says neighbor Glenn Hendricks, who is a member of the city's personnel board and is hoping to land a spot on the planning commission. He says the result will be a "canyon effect" caused by tall houses on one of the streets leading to the neighborhood. Hendricks, who grew up in a nearby Eichler neighborhood, remembers when the landscape was rural and "85 percent of the houses had kids."
Rob Ward, Chuck and Patty's son, says Rancho Verde began as an enclave of young families—aerospace engineers, scientists, and young retired military with second-careers at Fairchild Semiconductor or Lockheed.
Jack Worstel, an architect who has lived in the neighborhood for 30 years, points to a collectable Harry Bertoia rocker by his fireplace. "Jeannine used to rock all of our kids in that chair," he says of his wife. They raised four. "We've had a couple of new buckets," Jeannine adds, referring to the upholstery covering on the wire mesh chair.
"Growing up here was incredible," Rob Ward says. The neighborhood had 125 kids, who could play in the orchard, swim in water tanks, and camp out by Stevens Creek before Highway 85 destroyed its ambiance. Their parents enjoyed life there too, Patty says. "It was a very big party neighborhood," she says.
In many ways, things haven't changed in the neighborhood. Sidney Bernstein, an aero-mechanical engineer, says their Eichler in Sunnyvale cost $10,000 less than an identical model in Palo Alto when they bought it in 1962. When Paul Parker and Art Esperanza bought their home in 2000, they too had shopped Palo Alto first—where the price differential had risen to $200,000.
It remains a sociable neighborhood as well, with folks often chatting in the early evening while pushing strollers or walking dogs. Delicatessens, restaurants, and shops at a nearby strip shopping center make the neighborhood walkable, Parker says.