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."