Page Mill Road development hits another snag

Research, condo project remains in limbo after Palo Alto council requests application revisions

Harold Hohbach's tortuous journey to build a development filled with condominiums and research space on Page Mill Road just took another unpredictable swerve.

After a fittingly lengthy public hearing, the City Council decided early Tuesday morning to neither approve nor deny Hohbach's controversial proposal for 195 Page Mill Road. Instead, the council directed him to resubmit the plans for the three-story building under a different zoning designation -- one that would highlight the building's location near the Caltrain station.

The council's decision is the latest twist in Hohbach's seven-year quest to develop the site at the corner of Page Mill and Park Boulevard. The mixed-use building would feature 84 condominiums on the top two floors and more than 50,000 square feet of research-and-development space on the ground floor. Hohbach, 89, initially pitched a slightly larger version of this project in 2004 and saw the City Council narrowly approve it in 2006. But the city had to rescind the approval because of a lawsuit filed by land-use watchdogs and Palo Alto residents Bob Moss and Tom Jordan.

Critics of the project maintained that the new development would create a health hazard because of its location above an underground toxic plume -- known as the Hewlett Packard-Varian Plume -- that extends from Stanford Research Park. Moss has argued that the proposed mitigations for the project, which include a vapor barrier and a ventilation system, are insufficient and that the city should require regular monitoring of indoor air quality in the new building. His argument previously helped persuade the Planning and Transportation Commission to reject the project in August.

The Regional Water Quality Control Board, which has jurisdiction over the plume, has approved the proposed safeguards, and Hohbach argued they are more than sufficient to ensure health safety. Moss disagreed and accused the water board of being "fundamentally incompetent."

"We have a site that presents significant potential hazards, especially because of the basement, which goes within a foot or two of the aquifer," Moss said.

A handful of speakers urged the council to approve Hohbach's bid. They noted that the site is currently undeveloped and urged the council to give the project the green light. Geoff Dale, who lives in the area, praised the building's design and said the development would "bring jobs and economic activity when we need it most here in Palo Alto."

"Right now we have the opportunity to turn the dirt lot into some economic development for the area," Dale said.

The council's concerns went far beyond the health issues Moss brought up. Pat Burt said the design of the project renders it inconsistent with the city's Comprehensive Plan. The project would entail a vast courtyard with the building on the site's periphery -- a "hollowed-out block" that would look too massive when viewed from the outside, he said. The city's Architectural Review Board had approved the design but only after a long debate and a 3-2 vote.

"It's a design that has enhancements for the tenants and the occupants and not for the community," Burt said.

Councilwoman Karen Holman proposed having the project come back under the Pedestrian and Transit Oriented District (PTOD) designation, which can only apply to projects near transportation hubs. Having the development return as a PTOD-zoned project would allow the city's Planning and Transportation Commission and the City Council to review a number of issues that some of the council felt had not been vetted sufficiently, including whether there would be adequate parking and the building's impact on traffic, she said. The PTOD zoning would also reduce the density of the project.

Holman said resubmitting the project would allow the planning commission to weigh various the land-use issues that it was precluded from considering this time around. It would also allow the city's Architectural Review Board to take a fresh look at the design and come up with ways to make the new building more compatible with the surrounding neighborhood.

The council adopted Holman's proposal by a 7-0 vote, with Vice Mayor Yiaway Yeh and Councilwoman Gail Price absent.

Moss and the planning commission also had concerns about the potential effects of toxic chemicals from the research-and-development space on condominium residents. Council members did not object to having research-and-development space in the building, but they specified that the project's hazardous materials should be restricted to a very small amount, with the exact thresholds established by staff.

"We don't want to have the risk that can occur with R&D facilities," Burt said.

The project's 84 condominiums will include 17 below-market-rate units. Hohbach had initially pitched the residential component of the project as rental units but had recently revised his proposal to make them condominiums. He said he decided to make the change because of his advanced age and because he doesn't want to "encumber the people in my estate so they have to live with a 30-year rental project."

"I'm going to be 90 years old on Dec. 3," Hohbach told the council. "I'm lucky to be here. I'm hoping to build my project."

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Like this comment
Posted by T Tierney
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 4, 2011 at 8:32 am

Hohbach continues to be a nut, trying to amend the zoning we put into place to keep PA a comfortable residential community. He could have had this building in place years ago if he had wanted to abide by the laws. I wonder how he would feel if someone wanted to erect a similar building near his Atherton home?

Like this comment
Posted by clean it up
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 4, 2011 at 9:10 am

HP needs to clean up their toxic waste spill regardless of how that property is used. Why is it taking so long? Is stalling that much cheaper?

Like this comment
Posted by Supporter bias
a resident of South of Midtown
on Oct 4, 2011 at 9:48 am

The restaurant owner who spoke in favor of the monster building comes from restaurant Riace which is Hohbach's property. He "neglected" to mention that.
This story should be in the Palo Alto Issues category.

Like this comment
Posted by JO
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 4, 2011 at 10:24 am

That "dirt" used to house multiple small businesses, consistent with the GM zoning (Akins body shop was one of them), then Hohbach evicted them and bulldozed the property to the dirt lot that it now is. He did that before Bob Moss and Tom Jordan's lawsuit was decided (against his project).

I guess the "black hole" argument has worked for other developers in the past, so the tactic is still being used: create a black hole, and then get people to complain that anything is better than the black hole. Past City Councils have reinforced this "black hole" strategy by their approvals of projects employing this tactic. The present City Council may not be as gullible as past Councils.

Like this comment
Posted by Barbara
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 4, 2011 at 11:11 am

NO to this Hohbach who seems to be capitalizing on his age, as if this is a concern. . .Palo Alto needs to put a halt on any more massive construction.

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Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 4, 2011 at 11:13 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

If Moss's argument is valid, then vacate every building on the plume and make California Avenue another Love Canal. If not, then dismiss it and get on with the project. Incidentally, a good share of Palo Alto shared in the profit from that "toxic" plume, and the toxicity at low concentration is questionable.

Like this comment
Posted by MLT
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Oct 4, 2011 at 11:14 am

Interesting how a large portion of the residents is trying to fight mixed development. In our green-obsessed community it seems that only few understand that living close to work is the best solution to reducing car use. Mixed development will allow creation of work spaces (and jobs) close to where people live. Regardless of the details of this project, I am sure that we will see more mixed development attempts that will become a norm in near future.

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Posted by no exceptions please
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 4, 2011 at 11:30 am

Re: the Riacce shill: as far as I understand the buliding housing Riace was the "public benefit" Hohbach offered the city to allow PC density above the actual zoning, and for which he now collects rent, with the result of zero public benefit. Any contrary info available?
And of course Riace-guy wants "jobs" across the street, since they are lunch-eaters. Anybody hear of our jobs-housing imbalance, and no, the workers in the jobs are not likely to live in the condos, and there will be more jobs than condos anyway. Has anybody ever offered any datafor how may residents of mixed use developments in Palo Alto commute to work w/o a motor vehicle, and how many don't own a vehicle? Our existing regional zoning can't switch to Manhattan (try tearing down all single family homes to add 3-7 more units per lot maybe), but we can over-densify into its traffic gridlock.

Like this comment
Posted by Frank
a resident of Ventura
on Oct 4, 2011 at 12:08 pm

Akins body shop is still there. The original building were eye sores, run down and not particularly fit for the kind of businesses we have here today. They were all warehouses built to facilitate freight on the Southern Pacific. I know the big one was originally an onion processing plant - we haven't had that kind of agriculture here for a while now and it's not likely to come back.

I find it idiotic to insist the the out side be more open and inviting. Inviting to whom? One side it Caltrain, the other is Park Ave with a huge office building (which is not particularly open or inviting itself) On the ends are Akins body shop and another open lot.

The toxic plume argument is Mr. Moss grasping at anything to stop this project - it can be easily mitigated.

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Posted by Cid Young
a resident of another community
on Oct 4, 2011 at 1:12 pm

Well, at least the City Council didn't vote to reject it. If he uses the Pedestrian and Transit Oriented District (PTOD) designation, which can only apply to projects near transportation hubs, it will be a win-win, because of the "green" aspects of Mixed Use (Residential over retail, or in this case research & development. There is a complex in Mountain View called Two Worlds which is Redidential-over-Retail. It's right on the El Camino but upstairs in the residences, once can barely hear the traffic.

I wish him luck, although the opponents are running out of excuses to stop it, he may be running out of time due to his age.

Like this comment
Posted by JO
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 4, 2011 at 1:42 pm

I believe that Akins body shop moved to the property next door after Hohbach kicked them out and bulldozed.

If Hohbach had chosen to develop the project under the PTOD overlay in the first place, he could have had the project built by now. But he kept pushing for more: more floor space, more "R&D" (twice as much as PTOD will allow), less on-site parking. He's got no one to blame but himself if he doesn't get to see the project completed.

He has certainly provided income for his attorneys and development team by being so stubborn about it. Maybe he can take some comfort in that.

Like this comment
Posted by Supporter bias
a resident of South of Midtown
on Oct 4, 2011 at 2:32 pm

Re: the Riacce shill: as far as I understand the buliding housing Riace was the "public benefit" Hohbach offered the city to allow PC density above the actual zoning, and for which he now collects rent...
The entry area of Riace was supposed to be open to the public That was part of the public benefit and he has enclosed it so the public won't use it, and uses it for the restaurant. (Doug Ross pulled a similar ploy on the corner of Homer and High: promise a public area then enclose it for the restaurant's use.)
The new monster had ONE parking spot for each condo.What a self-serving self-centered greedy man. He has learned nothing from his years of working on this project. Yes, that's another developer ploy, to say, oh, its been so many years, I've worked so hard.

Like this comment
Posted by Bill
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 4, 2011 at 9:03 pm

The proposed design looks much like the JCC - a monster wall on 3 sides facing the streets. This would look similar. No one I've talked to likes this, and painting the walls to make them look like set backs is a spurious solution.

One parking space per unit is much too low. Almost every family has more than one car. I listened to Hohbach's arguments that it was sufficient because people would use the spaces vacated by people who have gone to work. So much for a transient oriented location when he is saying the spaces would be available because people would drive to work. And what about night time and weekend parking when most people are home?

The whole project is designed to maximize profit and disregard the Comprehensive Plan for adequate parking and a friendly appearance from the street.

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Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 6, 2011 at 4:56 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Maximize profit!!! Horrors!
And why isn't Riacce a public benefit? I kinda like Riacce's.

Like this comment
Posted by Cid Young
a resident of another community
on Oct 7, 2011 at 5:56 pm

Perhaps he should move on the greener pastures where a mixed-use R & D project will be welcomed by the City of Fremont. Land available right next to Tesla Motors Plant.
Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by jan
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 8, 2011 at 5:45 pm

On a related topic -- how is it that the retirement community (Sunrise Assisted Living) was built on this toxic site? What about the retirement community's water & air quality? Does anyone know who can answer these questions? Thanks very much for any insight.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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