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December 26, 2013


Poppy Guy

100% agree with you. I'm not a fan of these glorified rectangles that are designed to squeeze in as much square footage as the rules allow.

The flip side of the argument, though, is all the demand for larger homes in the price range that is Burlingame real estate. It's a nice problem to have, but if people with the means want to live here, and they want the bigger homes for their families. It's interesting how much the average house's square footage has increased so much over the past century. I'm not sure we all need that extra square footage, but it's the norm if we are comparing Burlingame to other similar towns "vying" for families to move here.

I'm not sure what the best solution is, but I don't think it's a draconian cutback on the square footage allowance.


Russ, going to have to disagree on part of your assessment. Burlingame is a fairly "urban" suburb with higher single family residential densities. The FAR ratios currently allowed are very similar to other urban suburbs in California, including local areas such as Mill Valley, Palo Alto, and the SF Sunset district. Also, the fact that land values are increasing are because of the ability to build larger houses, not in spite of it. $220-$250 psf of land value all homeowners are sitting on, you could probably attribute about $50-$60 psf to the ability to achieve higher FARs. Or put another way, homeowners property values are $300k-$400k higher in Burlingame simply because a lot of people like to live here, and the city allows larger houses to be built for families to suit their needs. Same thing with Palo Alto, Mill Valley and other areas. Understand that there is no such thing as a free lunch and not allowing the replacement of housing stock to keep it desirable would decrease property values especially as the older stock reaches the end of economic useful life. I don't know about you, but I would like to preserve that $300k-$400k premium for my land value so long that it doesn't degrade the quality of life in Burlingame, because if that's the case, that value will evaporate.

Having said that, this is why I think it is super-important that the Planning Commission and City Council heavily scrutinize plans for new houses and residences. I do agree that the relationship between builders, architects, planning commissioners is WAY too cozy and conflicts of interest, whether real or apparent, need to be eliminated. And I do agree that the above plan cited needs to be substantially revised as that plan is not property value additive for the surrounding houses. Bad planning/design for new houses will also destroy the brand equity that has taken decades for Burlingame to build.

One would think that builders, architects, and planning commissioners should actually be interested in keeping design integrity and uniqueness given that it allows them to support real estate values (in both good times and during recessions) and actually improve their businesses. If I were one of the 4-5 main developers/architects I would propose only the highest quality designs and have a gentleman's agreement with my competitors to do the same. Yes I may make less money for the next house I build, but if what I produce adds to overall real estate values then I can sell future houses at higher prices and because of this, I wouldn't have to build as many to make the same amount of money. Win-win for everyone involved.

I would also love it if there were a community event where the major local architects (Diehl, Terrones, et al) or not so local architects came and gave a similar slide show presentation to the community, architects and builders on what is good or not good design and provide some real world examples of houses in the neighborhoods or houses in other communities, if we don't want to hurt any homeowers' feelings. Also video tape it and make it mandatory viewing for any architect/builder wanting to do business in Burlingame. I guarantee you publicizing and holding such an event would change behavior.


I have sort of lost track of who specifically are the residential design reviewers these days. I knew them by name when design review was initiated, but haven't seen the list recently.

You can find the Guidebook here:


as authored by the Neighborhood Consistency Sub-committee of the PC and the overview page here:


I don't hold out much hope for an FAR reduction in our future, but perhaps more attention to design details and variety could happen.


I guess I simply can;t accept the argument that just because other city's FAR is similar than it should be OK for Burlingame.

It is only my opinion, but I see these houses on typical 100 x 50 lots that are oversized for the lot size. The mass and bulk are not consistent with the neighborhood ( see Joe's link to neighborhood consistency above.)

I am not necessarily against folks who want bigger houses, although the trending seems to be that there is demising interest for "great rooms" and bathrooms for each and every bedroom--I'll try to find some of those studies and post them here when I get a chance.

I am simply saying that Burlingame needs to look at our process once again in a public way. The Planning Commission looked at this last year as a subcommittee and did not properly notice those meetings nor their findings. Time for another look.


Thank you Russ.
Before you know it Burlingame may resemble the Sunset District.
No trees.
No Grass.
Just parking spots.


I understand where you're coming from Russ but my questions are why are current FAR regulations bad for Burlingame? Are the houses really "oversized" for the lots or for the demographic shifts? Based on what assessment of externalities vs potential benefits?

My point is that it is no accident that all these "urban suburbs" have similar FARs which have existed for a very long time (turn of the century Mill Valley, Palo alto, Sunset district), it is because there is an optimal point in balancing land value, walkability, transportation access with negative externalities (lack of privacy, noise, traffic, etc). And that optimal point is actually reinforced through market forces and "voted on" and that vote tally is seen through real estate prices.

Not to get too technical, but the concepts of walkable urbanism/suburbanism and access to transportation require FARs of 1.5 to 3.0, based on data across hundreds of cities around the world as well as prominent, world-renowned urban designers/experts. Low FARs lead to the opposite, namely sprawl, automotive dependence, lack of walkability, paved surfaces/parking lots, and buildings that are car-scaled vs people scaled. Burlingame being at roughly a .5 FAR (+ up to 420 sq ft garage allowances depending on set up) still puts in squarely in suburb territory (though a dense suburb), and not quite what is optimal for walkable or bike able urbanism (that so many people this site profess to advocate). I don't think that replacing 100 year old bungalows with .5 FAR houses causes significantly more externalities for MOST residents. And it probably doesn't given these types FARs have existed in an historical context developed over decades, in communities that seem completely content with similar FAR ratios. Would be interesting to see exactly why the regulations in Burlingame are as they are as I don't think these FAR numbers were made up.

It might not be optimal for the owners of 1,000 sq ft house to be surrounded by 3,000 square foot houses (in terms of negative externalities such as privacy, light, noise), but that 1,000 square foot house is worth $400k more because of the 3,000 square foot houses. Is it worth it? Maybe not to the 1,000 square foot house. But is the FAR regulation and land value worth it to the other three 4-6 member families living in the 3,000-4,000 square foot houses, it probably is, which then gets into the question of whether a city is providing the greatest good for the greatest number of people?

There are some very interesting studies done by various urban designers. Factually, you will find higher FAR communities are positive correlated to higher land values. Higher real estate/land values are due to supply/demand forces based upon desirability of a certain area. So what do most Burlingame residents residents actually want and at what cost?

I personally think that Burlingame is better served by enforcing smart design and architectural integrity and uniqueness rather than modifying a FAR regulation for SFRs that seems completely reasonable based on objective measures for the type of city that Burlingame is.


Good debate on this one. Not sure if there is an easy answer. Clearly local governments enjoy the revenues related to construction of larger homes (permit fees and property tax benefits) but neighbors often don't because of the reasons already mentioned above.

I cannot remember how long we've had FAR, but the concept of the height envelope is probably at least 20 years old by now. I'm pretty sure both were developed in reaction to large homes of poor design. Most of the new homes are far better designed than they were 20 years ago because of the design review process. Though mostly attractive, I agree with above comments that some seem bloated on the typically 50ft.wide lots. It gets worse in neighborhoods where the lot size is only 100 ft. deep.

The trend towards the large has not really changed, even though I think the average family is probably smaller now than a century ago. So, though the walking patterns may be in line with a more urban type of lifestyle, the density of people living in our neighborhoods has been pretty stable for decades.

In the past, one or more generations typically shared a modest 2 or 3 bedroom home that (if lucky) had one bathroom. Now a family of the same size or smaller often purchases or builds a much larger home, typically with 4 bedrooms, and 3-4 bathrooms. I’m convinced that this is part of a lifestyle shift geared towards clients who spend a significant portion of their day, including leisure time, indoors.

That said, I do think there may be a market developing for smaller homes for couples without children, or for those downsizing who have little interest in purchasing a condo in the suburbs. In the past two years there have been a few properties I’ve noticed that have been renovated, or are completely new, yet quite modest in size (I'd guess around 1800-2000 sq. ft. range). Each has sold quickly, for well over asking. I have enjoyed the stories that pop up now and then on the internet about living in small spaces- seems refreshing. Agree it would be nice to see more of the original bungalows retained that are relatively intact and can fill the small home niche quite well, as well as keeping more debris out of the landfill.

One of the Council members, I think it was Michael Brownrigg, mentioned having a ‘green industry destination’ in the Millsdale area of Burlingame where people from around the Bay could come for all-in-one shopping. It’s a great idea, and I think this industry could dovetail with salvaging shops, the type Russ talked about several posts ago, that are geared towards helping people restore and reinvent original properties where clients could learn how to adapt the old to the current standards to make them more energy efficient, etc. Most people don’t want to deal with figuring it all out by themselves, with multiple trips to the Planning Dept. --they don’t have time. But if there were businesses and contractors available who were well-versed in this regard, it would really help. There is a certain anxiety of the unknown, and I think that all people need to know is that it is possible to adapt and work with existing structures fairly easily, without breaking the bank. Simply put, it needs to be more attractive monetarily to reuse and adapt, rather than to level.


Why the "City of Trees" doesn't have more green building and demolition (as mentioned by Russ/Joe a while back) does speak to the pro-developer stance of the Planning Commission and City Council. However, post the 2000 anti-McMansion ordinances, things have gotten better design wise but could improve still in terms of design, architectural detail, uniqueness, green building/demolition. The house that Russ showed above looks terrible and I agree it does reflect a certain complacency, particularly as real estate markets get heated again and spec building rises which by nature will be the easiest, least thoughtful, and cheapest designs that cater to mass audiences, thereby guaranteeing "flippability"!

The information on downsizing is actually outdated as new census data shows that post recession and housing bubble burst, houses are right back up in terms of average size (has been the case with every housing downturn in history). The articles themselves call small houses at 3000 sq ft or less (or McMansions at 5000+ sq ft). Aren't the 3 largest lot size communities namely Burlingame Park, Easton Addition, and Ray Park houses pretty much limited to 3700, 3000, and 2750 sq ft respectively based on typical parcel sizes if you build to max FAR? Don't think that really is in McMansion territory as most of the rest of the country defines it. Also with Burlingame regulations allowing 1/3 coverage of the land and building up 2 stories with a daylight plane regulation (and mind you there are few basements here, unlike other parts of the country which have 3-4 car garages plus basements) with a 420 sq ft allowance for a detached 2-car garage again seems completely appropriate (at least to me) given the lot sizes.


As far as demand for smaller housing in Burlingame, yes it exists, but no it isn't older couples without children for single family residences (you see SOME of that in the condo market in Burlingame but it is limited). Just ask BSD themselves, who has done tons of demographic analysis and came to the conclusion that every stand alone house that is sold in Burlingame today is to a family with 2 adults and 2 kids. In fact, the BSD's projections have already been overshot and underestimated the number of new families, as Franklin and Lincoln saw record demand for enrollment in 2013 and new teachers had to be hired at the last minute. The small houses are going to young couples with 1 or 2 kids and sell quickly because that is what people in that demographic can afford at the typical 3x gross income loan size. It's a perfect way to enter the school district and either add sq footage to the smaller houses or trade up in a few years as they build savings.


I may have spoken too soon. I just looked up the plans and background for the above-proposed house on the city website and they are trying to keep the first floor/facade, extend it out to the side as is and add a second story. This actually explains the weird placement of the bay window, which sticks out like a sore thumb. The house also has a lot of dry rot, which means they can only keep a few walls. This may be a case where a teardown and new build with the proper design is better than trying to incorporate the old structure, which is resulting in a hodgepodge, disjointed design. There is only so much an architect can do given constraints.

That is the problem with a lot of the old existing houses, the foundations are crumbling, the wood is rotting, and it takes a great deal of money to replace and bring 80 - 100 year old construction to modern code that can withstand heavy rains, high water tables, flooding, and earthquakes. The economic useful lives of the existing housing stock needs to be replaced as getting past 100 years with moisture/humidity and high water tables is pushing it practically speaking. Might as well replace it with something properly designed from the ground up.


The granicus feed from the Dec. Planning Commission hearing is pretty interesting on this one. It is all over the map: from the unfortunate position of the old window in the new-dimensioned structure, to the client's preference of stucco over wood. But there is one thing in particular that stands out for me--

In this case a only a couple of walls will be remaining after demo. Although architecturally, the larger design doesn't seem to have anything in common with the original four-square bungalow, a Front Setback variance has been requested for that bay window as well as for a new front porch. One of the commissioners called it the 'elephant in the room.'

Maybe the conversation needs to be about reviewing grounds for requesting (and granting) variances...


My understanding is that the reason to leave walls from the "old home," is that there is a loophole in the Prop 13 legislation that by leave a minimum of old infrastructure,i.e two walls, the property taxes will remain unchanged for the owner...
That is Really Wrong for the City of Burlingame, County and State to allow that loophole to remain in effect.
Our Schools, Public Works, Infrastructure all get more expensive. Leaving two "rotten walls" standing on what is basically a Total Building Demolition is a serious lack of conscience.
Yet it goes on all over the State.

Burlingame Betty

I wasn't sure where to put this post but this seemed to fit my 'issue' -

I enjoy our neighborhoods, the wonderful aesthetics, trees views etc. I really enjoy watching home renovations and the new builds in Burlingame especially with design review, tree planting, landscape design - the whole thing...I love it - now before I get my head bitten off I also love our old bungalows and am very sad to see them go - however - if construction is under way I love watching the process unfold.

Driving down Hillside from Skyline there has been a corner house going up that we have been watching the progress on - I must say this particular home is a huge, white, stucco house that looks like a Foster City home of the '70's. How did that happen?

As I'm driving down wondering how that house could have been built (seems very over sized for the lot and the front door is so small I honestly don't know how any furniture will be moved in) as soon as I hit the 'lower Hillside' I am struck by the gorgeous homes that are being built. Obviously a product of the design review process (although we could use a bit more variety as many of the homes have the same look but they are still nice).

My question - Do the Burlingame Hills fall under the City of Burlingame design review process and if so - how did that house pass?


BB, here is a picture of the house you are referring to:


I'm not sure I agree with your assessment. Spanish style houses are far less common with Burlingame newbuilds, so think this may be a 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder' thing. Some of the 'craftsman' style houses in Burlingame Park and Easton are looking remarkably similar and in my opinion as these seem to be 'approvable houses' du jour that builders see sail through planning commission. A few years ago was 'tudors' then 'white colonials'. Said another way, when this house sells, it will probably sell at a higher price compared to all the wood-clad 'craftsmans'. We'll see in a couple of months. Maybe a few things could have been done here to break up the massing more given the lot size in this situation, but that's what mediterranean houses look like.

To the original post, I saw the revised plans of that house and it looked significantly better. It was a much needed overhaul.


Burlingame Hills is county-operated for most everything so my guess, just my guess, is that B'game design review is not used up there.


Betty, I must confess that I LOVE, love, love the smell of freshly milled wood as it is being constructed into something. I'm guessing mostly it is fir (?), but I have no idea. The process is very interesting.

I've always wondered about that pressboard recycled stuff as opposed to good old plywood. I don't know much about it, but it seems like it appeared on the market pretty fast, maybe 10 years ago, and now it seems as if it is used in the majority of what is built around here. Wondering if it will stand the test of time (I guess that depends on how well the layers on top of it are put together....) I'm not sure it smells as good as plywood :(


Jennifer, yes the OSB (oriented stranded board in builders parlance) is definitely cheaper and if moisture gets to it, it will expand more severely than plywood though OSB has improved after terrible litigation ensued in the 80s and 90s. Also has a life of approximately 80 years compared to 100+ for plywood. You'll see OSB used in Spec and tract housing as the builders like to save a few bucks and make more $$$.


Allow me to assert with the confidence of a guy who has pounded nails into them--that my 100+ year old bungalow is constructed of first-growth redwood 2x4s that are a full 2" by 4" in dimension and SOLID.

Locavore has speculated in the past that these old houses have a limited functional lifespan, but I respectfully disagree. If one is willing to upgrade the trim, the bones are spectacularly resilent.


Joe, no questions there are exceptions to what I stated in the past. In certain parts of the world houses last for 400-500 years or longer. The concept of economic useful life means that a lot of houses that aren’t properly maintained over the years are more expensive to re-hab than tear down and rebuild. Sure you can always re-hab with unlimited resources, but depending on the problems can be cost prohibitive. At some point you have to draw a line. From my own observations as well as friends looking to buy real estate here, quite a few of 80-100 year old houses seem to have a lot of issues. I believe most appraisals in California also use a 60-80 year depreciation life on most structures.


Yes, that is true. In our case, the structure was below grade, so we spent 22K- now probably would be about 30K to cut off the studs and pour a new, higher foundation over the insufficient one. The second story was added later, by pouring thick blocks of concrete in a few areas for a framework that only supports the second story- so we saved a lot of money by having a great structural engineer. The original redwood framework was in perfect condition and has never had problems, not even the trim.

We did have to get rid of the original wood gutters that were very cool, but they did their time.... I have to say, since then (25 years) we are on our second set of gutters so the metal didn't hold up as well as the old redwood ones!.......This time we invested in copper :)


I totally agree that maintenance is key, but I have also rehab'ed two that had a lot of deferred maintenance and built some good sweat equity doing it. I hope some other B'gamers get that opportunity over the next couple of decades instead of teardown after teardown.


Just a note that the designer of this proposed redesign (JDeal Associates) is Jerry Deal, a councilman who implemented a discussion with Planning Commission on prohibiting modern architecture (which I assume includes any contemporary or modern elements) in Burlingame on March 1, 2014. Council responded favorably so you can expect that this will now be typical of the type of architecture to be predominant in Burlingame.


The city of Burlingame is always looking for ways to cut costs and raise revenue. The above linked article illustrates the trend of tear-downs and many who are not tearing down to build their dream home, but to flip the house and make a few hundred thousands dollars quickly. I don;t begrudge anyone from making a buck or two, but the city has an opportunity to institute a "teardown tax" something I have mentioned here in previous posts. Let's say it's a $20K tax for each teardown, that could be a could chunk of change for the city. As a reminder, this is not a new idea, other cities across the country are doing this today.



Good idea. Tear down techies are paying the equivalent of $9M per acre on the teardowns.

On the flipside, I think that for the city to ban modern architect crosses the line regarding government infringement of private property owners.

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