Harold Hohbach's 'Park Plaza' project wins approval
Palo Alto City Council gives controversial Page Mill Road development the green light
After years of litigation, appeals, revisions and public hearings, developer Harold Hohbach finally claimed on Monday, June 25, the prize that has long eluded him — Palo Alto's permission to build a three-story development on Page Mill Road.
The mixed-use development, which the City Council approved 8-0 Monday night (Gail Price was absent), will feature 82 apartments, research-and-development space and a small cafˇ on the ground floor. It would stand at 195 Page Mill, next to the Caltrain corridor and a short walk from the California Avenue Business District.
The council approved the "Park Plaza" development three weeks after members criticized it for being too massive and looking too much like a "fortress." At the June 4 meeting, council members urged Hohbach's team to break up the buildings, add open space and make the development more attractive to pedestrians. Planning Director Curtis Williams said that staff believes that since the last meeting "there has been substantial modification to the design," as per council direction.
On Monday night, the council agreed the applicant did what was asked. The "fortress" has been broken up into three separate elements with access for pedestrians to a landscaped interior courtyard. Hohbach had agreed to reduce the number of apartments from 84 to 82 and reduced the commercial space on the ground floor from 50,467 square feet to 47,917 square feet.
Though the project consists of 102,225 square feet of development, most of the discussion Monday focused on the 2,400 square feet of retail the project would include. Vice Mayor Greg Scharff and Councilman Pat Burt both called for the applicant to subsidize a coffee shop or another type of food-and-beverage establishment. Hohbach agreed, though the team was already willing to commit to subsidizing a 1,200-square-foot coffee shop or similar business.
Not everyone agreed the retail component should necessarily be a coffee shop. Councilman Larry Klein advocated letting the market dictate the nature of the business.
"I'm not sure the council should be saying that this has to be a food-and-beverage place," Klein said. "We're sort of dictating what the market may want. There may be other things that might be more useful in that particular area."
After much debate, the council agreed to give the developer some latitude and required him to furnish either a 1,200-square-foot food-and-beverage operation or a 2,400-square-foot retail operation of a different sort. If Hohbach were to choose the latter option, the establishment could not be a financial, legal, medical or accounting business under a condition of the council's approval.
The council also directed staff to explore the possibility of installing ventilation and testing systems in the residential areas of the development to address concerns about contaminated groundwater. If staff were to determine that these systems would be useful and feasible, their installation would become another condition of approval.
Though the project ultimately earned the green light with no dissent, some council members acknowledged they were less than thrilled with the proposed development, even with the recent changes. Councilwoman Karen Holman said the design, even after revisions, doesn't add to the "built environment in a positive way."
Burt acknowledged that Hohbach's team responded to the council's direction. But he quickly hedged his enthusiasm for the development.
"It doesn't mean that I'm in love with this project," Burt said.
But the council was largely supportive of Hohbach's proposal to add a dense development to an area so close to the Caltrain corridor. The city has long eyed the California Avenue neighborhood as an ideal place for mixed-use projects because of the existence of a nearby Caltrain station. Mayor Yiaway Yeh and Councilman Greg Schmid both cited the project's location as a major reason why the project should be supported.
"I like very much the notion of the housing going in near the train station, and I think it is true that the neighborhood is growing and changing and this could be the important element of a revitalized and expanding neighborhood," Schmid said.
Yeh called the new development an "important addition" to the neighborhood and noted that mixed-use development has been the city's "broader intention for the California Avenue area."
"The lengthy process in the end has led to a better project," Yeh said.
The council's approval ends a decade-long saga for Hohbach and his application team. After going through the city's extensive application process, the developer succeeded in gaining the council's support in 2006 but was forced to return to the drawing board after a lawsuit from residents Bob Moss and Tom Jordan. Moss and Jordan claimed that Hohbach did not adequately analyze the environmental impacts of vapors emitted from a contaminated groundwater plume at the site.
Hohbach reapplied but met heavy resistance last year from the council, which encouraged him to seek a different zoning designation, one that would emphasize the development's location near the Caltrain tracks but would require a less massive building. Hohbach declined to seek a zone change, which would have required a fresh set of hearings, and persisted with a project under the existing "general manufacture" zoning.
On Monday, Hohbach said he was "very happy" with the council's decision.
"I think this will be a great addition to the area," Hohbach told the Weekly.
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.