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.