For more than five years, Harold Hohbach's bid to place a three-story building on the corner of Page Mill Road and Park Boulevard has been stuck in planning purgatory featuring multiple design reviews, a retracted approval and a lawsuit from local watchdogs who characterized the planned development as a threat to public health.
The proposal suffered another setback Wednesday night when the Planning and Transportation Commission distanced itself from the city's planning staff and voted 4-2, with Daniel Garber and Eduardo Martinez dissenting, to reject the project.
The development, known as Park Plaza, would feature 84 condominiums on the top two floors and about 50,500 square feet of research and development space on the ground floor. It would be located at 195 Page Mill Road, close to the Caltrain tracks and the California Avenue Business District.
The City Council had initially approved a similar proposal in 2007, but its approval was later invalidated by a lawsuit from residents, led by land-use watchdog Bob Moss. Critics claimed that project would create health hazards because of the toxins coming from the groundwater plume under the site and from the proposed research-and-development area. The court found in 2007 that the city should have given the public a chance to comment on the environmental analysis for the project after the Regional Water Quality Control Board, which has jurisdiction over the groundwater plume, suggested measures to mitigate problems arising from the groundwater.
The revised environmental analysis, which the commission considered Wednesday, notes that the site is located over groundwater that contains volatile organic compounds. These compounds originate from an off-site source known as the Hewlett-Packard-Varian Plume.
In voting against the project, the commission rejected the city planning staff's reccommendation to approve it. Planning and Community Environment Director Curtis Williams said the project is consistent with the city's push to place more mixed-use project near Caltrain stations. The site at 195 Page Mill Road is also listed in the city's Housing Element as potential location for new housing. The hazardous materials at the site, he said, are "very, very minimal" -- far lower than the levels found in the Stanford Research Park.
The latest environmental analysis includes several mitigation measures aiming to reduce the risk of groundwater contamination, including a vapor barrier under the garage and a ventilation system to make sure any vapors dissipate. The water-quality board approved of these measures but did not force the city to take indoor air samples at the apartments of the new developments, as Moss had urged. The measures, Hohbach told the commission, are more than enough to ensure public safety.
Commissioners Garber and Martinez agreed with staff that the project's location near the Caltrain station and near two prominent shopping areas is appropriate.
"The project would operate as an extremely helpful grid between the activity that goes on on California Avenue and the activity that will take place on the Fry's site," Garber said.
But the majority of the commission sided with Moss, who continued to maintain that the proposed development would create a health hazard for the condominium dwellers and that the water board's proposed mitigations are inadequate. Moss addressed the commission Wednesday and argued that the city should not put housing in a manufacturing zone, particularly given the uncertainty over toxins.
"It is in violation of the Comprehensive Plan, and it's also a violation of common sense," Moss said, referring to the city's official land-use bible. "It's not only absolutely unprecedented, it's absolutely idiotic."
Moss also argued that putting housing directly on the rail right-of-way is poor policy.
His arguments were enough to sway commissioners Arthur Keller and Susan Fineberg, who proposed rejecting the latest environmental analysis and Hohbach's proposed map for the project on the grounds that the "site is not physically suitable for the type of development" and because the proposal "is likely to cause serous public health problems." Commissioners Greg Tanaka and Chair Samir Tuma voted with Keller and Fineberg. Lee Lippert was absent.
"I really don't think it's appropriate to put a bunch of housing and to create a situation where we're releasing these toxins into the air, although they're supposed to diffuse what comes out," Tuma said.
The Wednesday vote means the City Council will be asked to choose between commission and staff recommendations when it considers the project next month. The council is tentatively scheduled to discuss Park Plaza on Sept. 19.