|If the Palo Alto City Council hadn’t sided with developer Harold Hohbach, he said he’d walk away from his mixed-use project at 195 Page Mill Road.
“I’m just going to have to give up and move on,” Hohbach said at Monday night’s council meeting.
Fortunately for Hohbach, the council voted 5 to 4 in his favor (Mayor Judy Kleinberg, Vice Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto, and Council members John Barton and Dena Mossar opposed) supporting his appeal of Planning Director Steve Emslie’s recent rejection of the three-story research-and-development building with 84 apartments on top.
The action moves the 155,438-square-foot project back into the normal city review process.
The site is bordered by the Caltrain tracks, Park Boulevard and a spur of Page Mill Road just south of Oregon Expressway.
Siding with neighbors, Kishimoto called Hohbach’s project a “massive, block-long, out-of-scale building” because it will exceed height limits, setbacks and other zoning requirements.
Council members supporting the project did so because Hohbach agreed to include 16 below-market-rate apartments instead of 13 units.
A state housing law, Senate Bill 1818, requires incentives or concessions in return for providing a certain amount of below-market-rate apartments.
“Were it not for that, this application wouldn’t be here,” said Councilman Bern Beecham, who made the motion to support Hohbach’s appeal.
Two years ago, the council rejected an even larger initial proposal from Hohbach for a four-story, 258,282-square-foot mixed-use building with retail, 177 apartments (including 32 below-market units), research and development space and underground parking. Current zoning would allow just under a 110,000 square feet building, with half being housing.
Hohbach returned to the city a year later with his current proposal, asking for 84 rental units and 50,000 square feet of research and development space in three stories with underground parking.
In September, Emslie denied the project because it was out of compliance with the manufacturing zone. Hohbach appealed.
During the public hearing on Monday night, 18 members of the public spoke about the project, two-thirds opposed.
Several neighbors who live on Emerson Street across the Caltrain tracks and Alma Street said the mixed-use building would block their afternoon sun, increase noise and be an eyesore.
“This is the worst of big-box retail without even the benefit of sales tax for you,” neighbor Suzanne Bayley said.
But local business owners as well as some of Hohbach’s current tenants in another rental building supported the project.
“Merchants on California Avenue are always looking at new ways to bring people to our area. I think it adds a lot of benefits to California Avenue,” said Terry Shuchat, owner of the photography store Keeble & Shuchat.
Shuchat said Hohbach’s mixed-use building would be a welcome change from the “World War II tin warehouses, which are just plain ugly.” Shuchat recalled as a youngster how ugly the stretch of Park Boulevard was, with a Pacific Ready Mix cement plant, a cannery where Fry’s electronics store now is, and a Hewlett Packard heavy-manufacturing building, among other eyesores. Hohbach’s current property is the last of that era, he said.
Councilman Peter Drekmeier welcomed the additional rental housing to Palo Alto, along with the below-market-rate apartments, and thought neighbors would not suffer as much as they predicted.
“I don’t think the problems are going to be as dramatic as the concern,” he said.
But Kleinberg said the apartments are not a reason to support a project that does not comply with city zoning regulations.
“As much as I would like to support a mixed-use project with rental units, I can’t make the leap,” she said.
“I don’t think we should be jumping through this many hoops to approve a project that is out of conformance,” she added.
The project, which already received Architectural Review Board approval in September, will return to the board for further discussion about a 451-foot-long, 40-foot-high "barrier wall" and incorporating “green” standards.
Hohbach also must mitigate certain impacts to the neighborhood, such as traffic, parking and noise. The project must include a transportation management plan to encourage alternative modes of transportation for its residents and employees, and must add a left turn lane on Park Boulevard.
(Staff Writer Molly Tanenbaum can be e-mailed firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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