Guest Opinion: Rewarding manipulation and intransigence | December 6, 2006 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - December 6, 2006

Guest Opinion: Rewarding manipulation and intransigence

by Doug Moran

One common bargaining stratagem is to start off with extravagant demands, back off to demands that are merely excessive -- portraying them as "compromises" -- and then claiming you are not only being more than reasonable but being victimized by the other side.

A popular local variation is to blame "The Palo Alto Process" for delays that were self-inflicted, and demand approval of projects that fail to meet established regulations. Over the years, City Council members have repeatedly fallen for this maneuver. Naturally these successes have encouraged its continuing use: The profits gained from being allowed to substantially exceed legitimate limits more than offset the costs of delay.

The latest instance is the Hohbach project at 195 Page Mill, next to the Caltrain tracks. The first proposal was submitted more than two years ago, a mixed-use (R&D offices and apartments) that was more than twice what was allowed under city zoning. In addition, because the project had inadequate parking, the developer wanted the City to close an adjoining street, and donate (not sell) the land to him for that parking.

He would make trivial improvements to a small portion of this land (a basketball court) and argued that this "public benefit" would justify allowing him to over-build the site.

Another of his claimed "public benefits" was a fountain in an internal courtyard, which he classified as "public art" because it would be visible to passersby (if they stood in just the right spot). Similar claims had been successful before: Developers had gotten away with claiming normal architectural flourishes on their buildings as "public art" and a developer got rights to over-build for putting in a tiny playground (which he subsequently bulldozed).

Hohbach also pulled another standard maneuver: withholding documents from review until just before the meeting. For one meeting, he withheld the required traffic study from the materials distributed to the public and staff.

Although the traffic study was done weeks in advance, and the cover letter dated the day before the distribution deadline, the developer's team delivered this important document to the homes of the Planning Commissioners the weekend before the meeting. Consequently, the public didn't get to see it until the meeting. And no wonder. Somehow the developer projected only 87 to 104 car trips during peak hours coming from 140-200 office workers and 177 apartments (remember, most couples commute separately). Yet when he calculated how many parking spaces he wouldn't have to build because office workers would use ones vacated by residents, his number was roughly double this.

The current proposal has been reduced from these levels, but remains far above the site's zoning and what the site will support. Despite sound rejections by both planning staff and the Planning Commission, the council approved it 0x2014> on a 5-4 vote Nov. 20 -- and is scheduled to confirm that vote this coming Monday (Dec. 11). The professional architects on the commission and the council voted against the project as being a bad design.

What does this matter to us citizens and taxpayers? A fundamental purpose of zoning is to distribute shared resources equitably among the various property holders, and avoid the free-for-all of first-come-first-served. By allowing one property owner to over-build, you effectively transfer building rights from other property owners. But such a transfer is not legal, so when those other property owners exercise their development rights, the taxpayers of the city will have to rectify the deficit. In a built-out city like Palo, this can be very expensive. In effect, the developer is receiving a large hidden subsidy from the taxpayers.

In the case of 195 Page Mill, one critical shared resource is traffic capacity. The area has long been recognized as having critical traffic problems, and I have heard no plausible ideas for increasing the capacity.

What makes the council's decision more inexplicable is that they are overriding a decision they made only a few months ago: During an extensive review of this area they explicitly established the current zoning for this property.

The message to developers is that manipulation of information and intransigence pays off, and handsomely.

Bad decisions such as this are easy for politicians to make: They are under pressure by influential people (developers and their allies) and the consequences of their decisions are unlikely to become apparent until long after they are out of office. Even then, the passage of time will have obscured the causal relationship.

And it's easy for us over-busy citizens to let these things pass without letting the council know we expect better from our elected representatives. (E-mail sent to will reach all Council members.)

The decision should be whether a project is good enough to meet city standards, not that it is not as bad as the original proposal.

Doug Moran is president of Barron Park Association and co-chair of Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN), the umbrella group of Palo Alto neighborhood associations. He writes this as an individual.


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