Man of steel
Publication Date: Wednesday Jul 19, 1995

Man of steel

Sixteen years in court, 20 years in storage, $1 million gone. Harold Hohbach really wants to use that steel

by Diane Sussman

Harold Hohbach doesn't mean to sound grim. Ordinarily, he's not a man to jabber on about home stretches and epilogues and legacies when there is work to be done. Still, at age 73, he can't escape the nagging awareness that his days on Earth are finite. "I'd like to think I have all the time in the world," he said, "but I don't."

Not that he has cause for alarm. "Nothing's going to happen to him for a long time," said his son, Doug, a Palo Alto structural engineer. "He's already beating the odds for men. He's in very good shape."

If stride and a firm handshake are any measure, it's true. The tall, robust Atherton resident walks so briskly less leggy people have to double-step to keep up. And his handshake could crush a can. As for the notion of passing a few pleasant years rocking on the porch, fuhgedaboudit. "Let other people retire," he declares, "Not me."

Yet whether Hohbach lives to 83 or 103, he still has the small problem of some leftover steel to contend with.

Actually, make that the small problem of some 300 to 400 tons of leftover steel to contend with. Give or take a few hundred tons.

Three to four hundred tons of steel he paid almost half a million dollars for 20 years ago. "And those are 1965 dollars, when $465,000 was a lot of money," he said.

Three to four hundred tons of steel he dutifully has paid $3,600 a year to store in Alviso. Three to four hundred tons of steel his landlord wants him to move. "They keep saying they want the land back. They have other things they want to do with it."

Three to four hundred tons of steel that has been vandalized, pilfered from and gathered a thick outer skin of rust.

And, finally, 300 to 400 tons of steel his wife and children have told him, in no uncertain terms, they want no part of should Hohbach, heaven forfend, pass to the Great Beyond. "My children keep telling me that the day I die the 'for sale' sign is going up," he said.

"He needs to find it a home, or it's going to the scrap yard," warned Doug. "I do not have any emotional attachment to the steel."

He could sell the steel for scrap--if he didn't have certain feelings about husbandry, money and profligacy. "My husband is a very straight arrow," said his wife, Marilyn. "Selling the steel for scrap is anathema to him."

Anathema to Hohbach is what an accountant would call a grave failure to grasp a fundamental business principle: cut your losses. "A more hardhearted businessman would have sold it for scrap a long time ago," said Doug. "Not my dad."

"I just feel that when you sell something, it's gone forever," said Hohbach in his own defense. "You lose the option of being able to build something, or do something."

The steel wasn't just a dreamer's purchase. Thirty years ago, while Palo Alto was in the midst of a building spree, Hohbach planned to erect one of the city's tallest buildings: a 10-story office building called Court House Plaza at 260 Sheridan Ave. He had a plan, he had an architect, he had a permit. He had everything but the steel.

A $465,000 shopping excursion fixed that.

He not only shopped for steel, he had drawings made, elevators built and the steel fabricated for a 10-story building. The bill: $1 million.

The venture never became a 10-story building. Instead, it became a four-story building and a 16-year lawsuit: civil case No. 45375, Court House Plaza Company vs. the City of Palo Alto, et al.

"I wanted to get into real estate," explained Hohbach, whose day job is patent attorney with the Palo Alto intellectual property firm of Flehr, Hohbach, Test, Albritton and Herbert. "It was a sideline that grew into an overwhelming headache."

He wanted to get into real estate because he had the itch to build. "Being a lawyer, you push paper all day. But personally, I like to build something. I like to see something at the end of the day besides paper moved from one side of the desk to the other."

Building was part of his past. He had spent summers on construction crews, building highways and runways in his native South Dakota. In the Army Signal Corps, he oversaw construction of airports and omni stations and storage depots.

He intended to make a career of constructing things. He got his first bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from South Dakota State University, then went to work for Westinghouse Electric Corp. in Pittsburgh. He got a second bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of California, Berkeley four years later.

He didn't get his law degree, also from Berkeley, until he was 31. He spent the next 30 years working as a patent attorney--and building up Palo Alto. "He's really an engineer at heart," said his wife, Marilyn. "This is really a follow-through from earlier in his life."

To Hohbach, Palo Alto seemed the ideal place to build. It was getting bigger, richer and more cosmopolitan.

Yet its architecture remained small-town and small-time, dotted with one-story houses, one-story libraries, one-story bookstores and one-story office complexes.

What the city needed, Hohbach believed, was some vertical excitement, not more horizontal tedium. "Look at these buildings around here," he said, referring to the row of low-slung buildings on Hansen Way in Palo Alto, where Hohbach has his office. "You can build bigger buildings with more land around them and have the feeling of space. Or you do this kind of thing."

In the mid-'60s, when Hohbach first proposed building the 10-story Court House Plaza, tall buildings were rising all over town. Witness Palo Alto Square, 525 University Ave., 101 Alma St.--even City Hall.

The original plan for Court House Plaza called for construction in two stages: four stories to start, six stories later. Hohbach had two years to build the first story and 10 to build the remaining six. His deadline for building the second phase was Halloween, 1976.

Somewhere between four stories and 10, things happened. First, money got scarce. "We got usury laws," recalled Hohbach.

Without loans, Hohbach and his partners couldn't finance the project. They decided to wait for a drop in the rates or a change in the law.

At the same time, the market for steel bottomed out, so there was no possibility of unloading the half-million dollars' worth of steel. "We had six stories of steel," said Hohbach. "We couldn't sell, and we couldn't borrow."

But to blame the economy is to overlook the social and political forces that contributed to the project's demise. In the 10 years Hohbach had to build, Palo Alto experienced a shift in sentiment that rendered Hohbach's vision for the city incompatible and illegal.

Rather than being charmed by Palo Alto's new tall, sleek buildings, many residents were appalled. The late 1960s and early '70s proved to be a watershed for Palo Alto as "residentialists" sought to preserve the city's residential character by preventing the kind of large buildings Hohbach had in mind. The movement succeeded in quashing the so-called "Super Block" development downtown and the Palo Alto Medical Clinic's proposal for a large hospital at the clinic's current site. Both were rejected by voters in the early 1970s.

"There was concern that Palo Alto was going to turn into one huge industrial park," said City Council member Dick Rosenbaum, who was active in the residentialist movement at the time. "There was fear it would change the feeling of the town."

Court House Plaza qualified as yet another mega-monstrosity spoiling the city's lines. "People saw it as the distillation of all that is Manhattan, but coming to Palo Alto," said Hohbach.

The change in the political tide also resulted in the City Council in 1974 laying down a new law: No more buildings taller than 50 feet.

The new law meant that, even if Hohbach could borrow the money, he couldn't build. Furthermore, by the time he came back with the proposal for the second phase in 1976, the 10-year grace period for the additional six stories had run out.

Outraged, he sued for an extension. "I thought I had a vested right to complete the building."

The city didn't. Hohbach could have built the building earlier, city officials argued, but he waited too long. It wasn't their fault interest rates had gone up. And it certainly wasn't their fault he prematurely went shopping for steel.

Hohbach countered by arguing that high interest rates weren't the only reason he delayed. The city, too, had contributed to the tortoise-like timetable. Several times Hohbach submitted plans, and several times he encountered problems. There were problems with code requirements for a smokeproof tower, problems over parking, problems over the fate of the Page Mill Corridor (now Oregon Expressway), problems with the scale of the architect's plans.

The city maintained its position that it was too much too late. "Sometimes cities have to draw the line, and sometimes that means dealing with a lawsuit," said former Council member Emily Renzel. "The most important thing was to preserving the scale of California Avenue. The people in this town were very clear that they wanted a 50-foot height limit."

It's a good thing there was no Court TV at the time, because the case dragged on for 16 years.

On June 16, 1978, Palo Alto blinked and offered Hohbach a compromise: eight stories. Ten stories or nothing, said Hohbach. "Looking back, I should have taken it," he said. "But I would have had to throw away one-third of my investment. I couldn't accept that. Besides, I thought I would win."

He continued to think so--so fervently that he appealed twice to the California Supreme Court and three times to the U.S. Supreme Court. "I just kept losing," he said. "And the Supreme Court wouldn't hear it. At that time, if it wasn't a big civil rights case, they weren't interested."

In 1991, after his third go-around with the Supreme Court, he dropped the suit. "It's over. I've given up adding stories to the building. The moral of the story is, you can't fight city hall."

Meanwhile, the entire time Hohbach was filing appeals, he was putting up buildings. Shorter buildings, but buildings.

In the area of California Avenue, Hohbach's project dominate: the four-story Court House Plaza office building at 260 Sheridan Ave.; the two-level parking structure across the street at 261 Sheridan Ave.; the 66-unit, cream-and-teal condominium complex at 345 Sheridan Ave.; and the striking, four-story, green granite office building at 200 Page Mill Road known as Page Mill Park--all are Hohbachs.

Within the next year, add 2650 Park Blvd.

"Harold Hohbach is a collector of buildings," said Palo Alto architect Michael Lyzwa, who designed two of Hohbach's buildings, Mayfield Condominiums at 345 Sheridan Ave. and the Page Mill Park office complex.

Lyzwa is also the architect for 2650 Park Blvd., a 50-unit apartment complex called Sheridan Plaza that will be built on the empty lot at the corner of Park and Sheridan Avenue.

Already, the deluxe apartment building is causing a tempest in a toolbox. For some people, it's the size--twice the permissible floor area-to-lot size ratio.

For others, it's the angels.

Angels? Make that "winged figures," four of them, one on each corner of the building. "We started calling them winged figures because people were thinking of them as religious figures," said Lyzwa. "My idea from the beginning was to have sculptural elements with architectural elements. It was more the idea of adapting a Renaissance idea in a modern California environment."

Be they angels or winged figures, the sculptures are a "public benefit" in exchange for being granted a "planned community" zone which allows a size exemption. This is the first instance of a developer exchanging public art for an exemption.

Needless to say, Arts Commission members are ecstatic. "The applicant ought to be congratulated for putting up public art," said Arts Commission member Sandra Eakins. "It's a good precedence for the city."

The project also plans to make use of a material never before used in a residential building in Palo Alto: steel.

This would not, by any chance, be a certain 300-400 tons of steel, now rusting in Alviso?"

It is. "Mr. Hohbach came to me and told me he'd been storing this steel," said Lyzwa. "He said it might be his last project."

A steel building would be strong, safe, malleable, beautiful and quiet, said Lyzwa. "I love wood, but steel is the best material seismically. From an interior perspective, steel is wonderful. You have great possibilities for day lighting. You can have high ceilings. You can have interesting curves and angles. And you can have perfect quiet."

If anyone can wrest beauty from steel, it is Lyzwa, says Architectural Review Board member Julie Maser. "He has a tremendous sense of design. He does beautiful buildings."

So if steel is so wonderful, why aren't there more steel residences? How come only corporations get the big glass windows and curved interiors? "Because it doesn't pencil out," said Lyzwa. "You could build this building for substantially less if you didn't go to steel."

Still, the prospect of uniting Palo Alto with Hohbach and his steel set off an "awwww" reaction in the corridors of City Hall. "It's like that play, 'Six Characters in Search of an Author,'" said Maser. "It's a good use of resources. And in this day and age, that's a big concern."

Only Rosenbaum was unmoved by the 300 tons of steel. "I think it's a gimmick," he said, and voted "no" when the project came before Council in January.

Rosenbaum's suspicions may prove true. According to Lyzwa, the project's contractors aren't obligated to use Hohbach's steel. It would be nice, but it's not required. "A contractor may want to use all new steel, or use some of the steel. We have to wait and see the bids."

"Maybe I shouldn't have mentioned that," he said, after a moment's reflection.

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