News

Page Mill Road development nears finish line

City Council asks for a less 'massive' design; expects to vote on project on June 25

After a decade of legal wrangling and plan revisions, developer Harold Hohbach now stands at the cusp of getting Palo Alto's blessing for his proposed three-story building at 195 Page Mill Road.

The City Council on Monday, June 4, signaled its support for bringing a mixed-use development to the 2.5-acre site at Page Mill and Park Boulevard, particularly given the project's inclusion of 84 rental units. But rather than approve the project, the council directed Hohbach to return with a revised design that would be more inviting to people walking by.

The council's 8-0 vote, with Mayor Yiaway Yeh absent, sets the stage for another lengthy public hearing on June 25, at which time Hohbach and his team are scheduled to return with a project that looks less massive and friendlier to pedestrians. Council members signaled Monday that if he makes the "substantive" changes in the building's design, they would approve the project and thereby end Hohbach's long and messy journey through the city's planning process.

Most members of the council supported the project's concept -- a dense, tall building a short stroll from the California Avenue Caltrain station. The council had asked Hohbach on Oct. 3 to bring the project back under "pedestrian- and transit-oriented development" (PTOD) zoning, a move that would have reduced the residential component. The changed zoning would have also prompted a new round of public hearings in front of the city's Architectural Review Board and the Planning and Transportation Commission. Hohbach rejected the idea and requested a vote on the project as submitted, under the existing "general manufacturing" zoning designation.

"We concluded that it made no sense to spend additional time, money and energy to pursue a new PTOD project when we have a virtual PTOD project here on the table," Hohbach's attorney James Janz told the council Monday.

The new proposal last year earned the approval of the city's Architectural Review Board, which voted 3-2 to support it. Palo Alto resident Bob Moss, who had battled Hohbach over the project in court, appealed this approval and urged the council Monday to kill the project once and for all. Moss argued, as he had in the past, that the developer hasn't done enough to ensure that the building's residents would be adequately protected from chemical vapors emitted by a contaminated groundwater plume at the site.

But the bulk of the discussion Monday focused on the project's design, and Moss argued that the building's appearance is reason enough to reject it.

"This project fails the basic test of compliance, compatibility and looking appropriate in a residential zone," Moss said.

Councilwoman Karen Holman agreed and proposed rejecting Hohbach's project. She ultimately voted with her colleagues, but only after Councilman Pat Burt added provisions requiring the developer to come back at the end of the month with "substantive" changes, including public space that encourages people to walk by and better transitional elements between the new development and adjacent buildings and amenities.

This wasn't the first time the council asked Hohbach to come up with a more pedestrian-friendly design. At its Oct. 3 meeting, the council directed Hohbach to make the project less "massive" and more attractive to people traveling by foot. But the project that came before them Monday night was essentially the same one they had seen seven months ago. Councilman Sid Espinosa characterized it as a "fortress."

"For folks going down the street, it really creates a mass and a scale that's overwhelming," Espinosa said.

Holman called the proposed development "big-box housing" and said she was "offended to the point of being angry" by the direction the project has taken. She argued that the city often gets projects that are just "good enough" to get approved by the Architectural Review Board.

"This community deserves better," she said. "We absolutely do."

But the council majority agreed that the city should not pass up on a chance to add 84 residential units to a neighborhood near the Caltrain station. Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd said she would be willing to support the project even without any further design changes. Vice Mayor Greg Scharff and Councilwoman Gail Price both cited the dearth of rental housing in Palo Alto in explaining their support. The 84 units in Hohbach's proposal would include 17 below-market-rate units. Scharff said it's rare for the city to get a project with rental housing. Price agreed.

"One of the compelling points for me is the opportunity for a mixed-use project that combines R&D (research and development) and rental housing," Price said. "Rental housing is a need in our community."

If the council were to approve the development later this month, it would conclude a tortuous journey spanning nearly a decade. In 2003, Hohbach had considered applying for a "planned community" zone, which would have allowed him to exceed zoning regulations in exchange for negotiated "public benefits." He ultimately decided to apply under existing zoning designation.

Hohbach received the council's blessing for the project in 2006, but was forced to revise his environmental analysis after a lawsuit by residents Moss and Tom Jordan. Hohbach then changed the residential component to condominiums before reverting to rental units in the current iteration.

Related stories:

Hohbach gives Palo Alto an ultimatum

Page Mill Road development hits another snag

Comments

Posted by svatoid, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 5, 2012 at 10:34 am

If Bob Moss and Karen Holman are against it, then I wholeheartedly support the project.
And of course that raises the question, Bob, what is the problem the appearance of the building or the contaminated groundwater? And if those reasons do not get you what you want, will you come up with another excuse to kill the project????


Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 5, 2012 at 11:16 am

The irony of this scenario is killing me.

There is such a double-standard going on here.

The downtown PA "gateway" project did not receive anywhere close to the amount criticism in terms of appearance, bulk, height, "pedestrian friendly", etc.

Money talks and you-know-what walks...


Posted by The Big Ugly, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jun 5, 2012 at 11:43 am

Instead of focusing on the length of time the project has been on the table which is the developer's ploy, you should focus on his obstinate refusal to reduce the ugliness and pedestrian unfriendliness.
Weekly! how about a picture of the Big Ugly?
I mean their picture with the imaginary flowering trees with which the architect tries to hide the building.
Remember when Hohbach at the last minute in front of the council switched it from rentals to condominiums?


Posted by YIMBY, a resident of University South
on Jun 5, 2012 at 12:01 pm

YIMBY is a registered user.

@ svatoid, who wrote: "If Bob Moss and Karen Holman are against it, then I wholeheartedly support the project."

LOL.
Seriously, to Bob, who is quoted in the article, ""This project fails the basic test of compliance, compatibility and looking appropriate in a residential zone."

Bob - look across the street - does the domineering presence of AOL and it's MASSIVE parking lot qualify the zone as residential??

To the city council: You have an Architectural Review Board - let them do your job. Last night was not your best night. As council member Shepherd stated - she bikes by there often and the presence of this building would be a huge improvement.
Another council member had very interesting words to describe the blighted area.

Not only has the council replaced the ARB with themselves - they asked staff to do cover the details - no wonder the council has yet to submit a housing element - we are the only city in the county yet to do so. Every detail must be worked out first, consequently, not much gets done, but a lot gets delayed.


Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 5, 2012 at 1:16 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

There is NOT a dearth of rental housing in Palo Alto: The last numbers I saw put rentals at 56%, which was higher than the numbers cited for Mountain View, Santa Clara, ...

There are lots of apartment buildings in places most Palo Altans don't see, and there are also many single family homes that are rentals.

---
Re YIMBY on this being a blighted area: The reason that the area is blighted is that Holbach ILLEGALLY tore down the existing buildings (the general rule are that you can remove a building until you have approval for its replacement, unless there are exceptional circumstances). The buildings that were there were functional and full of tenants. Just another instance of Holbach's contempt for the rules and attempting to bully the City.

---
It is annoying that so many Council decisions proceed from false "facts".


Posted by ABAG hell coming, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 5, 2012 at 1:40 pm

The dearth of rental housing for employees wasn't helped by adding zero housing and overzoning the Gateway project to increase employees by 150-250 (of course no one was willing to limit employee numbers but the "open office" start-up structure packs them in, which arguably is not reflected in last-century parking per sq ft of office rules). I guess the positive is that the 87 units here might offset part of the damage done to the jobs-housing imbalance.


Posted by svatoid, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 5, 2012 at 1:45 pm

"There is NOT a dearth of rental housing in Palo Alto: The last numbers I saw put rentals at 56%, which was higher than the numbers cited for Mountain View, Santa Clara, ..."
And how much of that 56% is available fo rental--that is the critical number

"The reason that the area is blighted is that Holbach ILLEGALLY tore down the existing buildings "
Then why has he not been prosecuted if he "illegally" tore down the old building?


"It is annoying that so many Council decisions proceed from false "facts"."
Yes, false facts.....


Posted by The Big Ugly, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jun 5, 2012 at 2:07 pm

Thank you, Weekly, for the pictures.
Have you ever seen anything so unimaginative, a bunch of rectangles piled on one another, with bright paint to disguise the lack of imagination. And imaginary flowering trees. And this is the developer's best rendition.
Maybe it was designed by a kindergarten committee with blocks.That would explain it.


Posted by svatoid, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 5, 2012 at 2:14 pm

"Have you ever seen anything so unimaginative, a bunch of rectangles piled on one another, with bright paint to disguise the lack of imagination. And imaginary flowering trees. And this is the developer's best rendition."
And what do you expect it to look like? do you want something like the Guggenheim Museum? Yes, buildings tend to be rectangles.
No wonder nothing ever gets done in Palo alto and when by some miracle something does get built, people then spend the time after whining about it (JCC, for example)


Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 5, 2012 at 2:50 pm

Why are the sidewalks so narrow? I walk past there all the time -- it would be nice to have wide enough sidewalks for a change.

Also, the corner structure of the building looks very odd, and the canary yellow makes it look even more odd.





Posted by Wondering?, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 5, 2012 at 5:57 pm

> I saw put rentals at 56%, which was higher than the
> numbers cited for Mountain View, Santa Clara, ...

According to data on the US Census web site, the renter occupancy is about 42%. This number seems to be an estimate for the past five years or so, and might be a little out-of-date. Where was this 56% cited?


Posted by Wondering?, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 5, 2012 at 6:06 pm

> The reason that the area is blighted is that
> Holbach ILLEGALLY tore down the existing buildings

There are a set of conditions that a property must demonstrate before it can be considered as legally "blighted":

Web Link

An empty lot probably does not present any (or many) of these conditions. Even if the previous buildings might have been old, or "unsightly", there really wasn't much evidence of "blight" on that block. Whether he tore done the buildings legally, or illegally, is a matter for the courts


Posted by Pity Poor Park Blvd., a resident of Ventura
on Jun 5, 2012 at 6:39 pm

I hate to say it, but that vacant property is a perfect example of how a small group or people can hold an entire city and sub-region within that city, hostage.

Mr. Holbach's design isn't the most forward, but the design WAS approved by City Council some years ago. The project was given the green light. What happened?

Bob Moss - a so-called "Council Watchdog" - who you will find at every Council meeting, and most of the Commission advisory meetings didn't agree, so he found a basis to sue.

We have the same thing going on California Ave. Same in the old Alma Plaza location. Rinse. Wash. Repeat.

We have anti-housing fanatics in Palo Alto who will do anything to stop a project, for ANY reason they might come up with.

So what has this delay cost Palo Alto? Attorney's fees; staff diligence; lost rental income and new business on Cal Ave (Google made a lease there but didn't move in because it didn't want to be across the street from a chaotic construction zone - s, we lost a Google opportunity!). Also, the delay in construction will make the building cost more (construction inflation); those costs will be passed on to the new tenants. Taxpayer money, resident money, retail revenues - all lost, for what? To satisfy the whims of a few "Council Watchdogs". It's a bad joke.

As for Karen Holman, she's a nice person, but entirely without vision; she has always been this way, in all the years I've watched her on Commissions and the Council. She got the Council seat because she is an insider, period. Same with Burt.

Sure, they went out and raised money, yadda-yadda, but it's mostly about gaining Council endorsements for your run, isn't it. Note that Burt and Holman both come from Planning and YTansportation, which is supposed to be a plum appointment for anyone who wants to be put on the path to a considered council position.

btw, too bad Pat Burt never showed up for CAADA meetings, as a Council liaison to CAADA. In fact, it was Burt who let the community down by his absence, letting others take the fall for his lack of attention to detail and constant absence from meetings where the city made clear its plans. Oh, well...

So, we have some good persons, but at the same tiem *some* weak persons on the Council; they don't know how to legislate, and they have lacking forward vision. Those same people give undue weight to "Council Watchdogs" who can recite City Code, chapter and verse, and act like they really understand the complex dynamics of Palo Alto, but they don't. Instead, what I see in the Council Watchdog types is an inability to hear "no" to one or more of their ideas. When they hear "no", they use their extraordinary knowledge of City code to gum up the works, and cost everyone money, inconvenience, and sub-optimal social benefits.

Think about it: SEVEN YEARS that Holbach's property has been in limbo, a cesspool of an empty lot; rat infested; inviting of transients; dark; lacking a structure to insulate train noise from adjoining neighborhoods, robbing the Cal Ave district of revenue; etc. etc.

We could have a building there NOW; it could have had, by now, a developed landscape facade, and fit so very nicely into the neighborhood. As for those who complain about the exterior facade of the building: I have heard those voices, before, and they are the very same voices that would have complained about this structure, in Paris Web Link when it was first constructed.

What really makes me chuckle at all this is that almost every so-called "Watchdog" in Palo Alto is already ensconced in his or her own home, living comfortably on a pension, public assistance, or inherited property of some sort or other. I know this for a fact. It's a huge irony.


Posted by Park Blvd Neighbor, a resident of Ventura
on Jun 5, 2012 at 6:50 pm

And what about that fountain?

Winged nude sitting on a geyser of (hopefully not contaminated ground) water.


Posted by Hulkamania, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 5, 2012 at 9:57 pm

When Bob Moss sues is it pro se? No wonder he can afford to sue so many people and organizations.


Posted by Joe, a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 5, 2012 at 11:26 pm

Here's a link to the Palo Alto Weekly article about Mr. Harold Hohbach from 1995: Web Link

If you didn't know, his 4 story building at 260 Sheridan was originally intended to be 10 stories. After 16 years in a lawsuit with the City of Palo Alto, two appeals to the California Supreme Court and three appeals to the United State Supreme Court, he finally got the message that it wasn't going to happen.

Still the same ol' Mr. Hohbach, threatening and suing, and even today telling us that this is his last major project before he dies. Hey, at least Bob Moss lives in Palo Alto. Mr. Hohbach is a former patent attorney living in Atherton.


Posted by Gotta Cry and Rub My Eyes, a resident of South of Midtown
on Jun 6, 2012 at 8:05 am

OMG! You have gotta be kidding.

This is one of the least inspired piece of architecture Palo Alto has seen in a long time.

The development says CHEAP CHEAP CHEAP. Cheap to build, makes the neighborhood look cheap, and will result in cheapening the neighborhood.

I would rather see a level lot than this architectural horror.


Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 6, 2012 at 9:47 am

"Hey, at least Bob Moss lives in Palo Alto. Mr. Hohbach is a former patent attorney living in Atherton."

Of course Hohbach lives elsewhere. Palo Alto developers prefer that. They don't want to live with their creations, and who can fault them?

Hohbach finally wised up: like the Gateway project and 800 High Street, he pushed his oversized baby through during an election year. And wow, didn't councilmember Burt read his little script perfectly.


Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 6, 2012 at 1:45 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: "Wondering?" question on my citing 56% rental units vs the 42% s/he cites from the Census web site (annual products, not the 10-year):

The 56% was from my notes of a meeting of the City's Technical Advisory Committee on the Housing Element (of which I was a member), but I didn't note the source. Since 56% and 42% are near mirrors, it is possible that the speaker or I flipped which number was which.

There is another possibility that I remember being mentioned one of the many meetings that I have attended over the years: That the 10-year Census shows more rental units in Palo Alto than the normal counting methods produce because they tend to miss many rental units in "single-family" properties (cottages, conversions to create a single rental unit, ...) and houses that aren't rented through public listings.

------
But the issue of rental units at that location is more an issue of the intellectual and political dishonesty of the City's PTOD zoning. Both experience and analysis has shown that the people occupying such units are very unlikely to use the train for commutes because the train doesn't serve the locations that the potential renters will work. However the PTOD fictions encourage buildings that will almost certainly generate a larger volume of vehicle that the streets are designed or prepared to handle.


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