Hohbach gives Palo Alto an ultimatum

Developer tells city to approve building plan as submitted or face court

Developer Harold Hohbach is demanding the Palo Alto City Council accept his plans for a three-story building at 195 Page Mill Road as is or face potential litigation -- again.

Hohbach, 89, has been seeking city approval since 2005 for the mixed-use housing and research-and-development project. But the beleaguered Park Plaza project has been mired in lawsuits and rejections.

Land-use watchdogs Bob Moss and Tom Jordan sued Hohbach in 2007, arguing that the proposed building doesn't include sufficient safeguards to protect residents from a toxic plume under the site. Then Hohbach sued the city in 2010, claiming the city was stalling the project.

The latest disappointment for Hohbach occurred on Oct. 3, when the council criticized the project's design and asked him to return with a new application under the zoning known as pedestrian and transit-oriented district.

Hohbach asked council members to reconsider their decision, saying it would force him to completely redesign the project.

On Wednesday (Oct. 26), he sent a letter to the council, offering a way to rapidly move the project forward. Pursuing a new zoning designation would be prohibitively expensive for Hohbach Realty Company and the process would incur additional design costs and would take another year, he argued. He would be 90 years old on Dec. 3 and wants to complete the project in his lifetime, he said.

So Hohbach is proposing to make the 84-unit residential portion rental only on a permanent basis.

"No condominiums -- but otherwise as presented at the previous hearing. Proposed below-market-rate (BMR) units would remain so for 30 years," he said.

Hohbach challenged the council to approve or deny the project as it now stands. Failure to do so would force him to abandon the project and turn it into strictly 50,467 square feet of grandfathered research-and-development space. And he warned that all of the housing would be lost.

The proposed project is substantially the same as one approved by council in 2006 (which subsequently expired), he argued. He warned that he could again sue the city if the council rejects his proposal.

"Should the city repeat its conduct now, the applicant's only option would be to renew that litigation. HRC's losses have only increased over the past year or so and the estimated damages now exceed $2 million," he wrote.

In February 2010 he argued in federal court that the city lengthened the project's approval process needlessly by re-circulating the environmental-review document and forcing him to agree to more mitigation measures than are normally required.

The city was forcing him to build too many affordable-housing units and to comply with zoning requirements that did not exist when he initially applied for the project, he said.

He also charged that city officials engaged in such conduct to prevent him from completing the project before he dies.

Hohbach, a patent attorney, is no stranger to lengthy litigation. In the mid-1960s he wanted to build one of the city's tallest buildings, Court House Plaza, at 260 Sheridan Ave.

He built four stories of the original project and deferred the other six stories when he couldn't secure funding. In the meantime, pressures to limit the height of buildings took hold and in 1974 the council limited building heights to 50 feet.

Hohbach sued, arguing then as he has now that the city dragged its heels. He spent 16 years in court and eventually lost.


Like this comment
Posted by Roger Overnaut
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Oct 27, 2011 at 5:45 pm

Seems to me this guy would rather sue than build.

Like this comment
Posted by Sheri
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 27, 2011 at 5:54 pm

"He also charged that city officials engaged in such conduct to prevent him from completing the project before he dies." Hohbach has said this for years every time he comes before Council. As one who interacted with him on this project, it became clear he just wants to build what he wants to build, regardless of any other input.

Denying the project "would force him to abandon the project and turn it into strictly 50,467 square feet of grandfathered research-and-development space." Not necessarily a bad thing, IMHO, given the location.

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Posted by Who cares
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Oct 27, 2011 at 9:23 pm

Threatening to die is blackmail. What an awful person. All he had to do is follow the zoning. He probably could have gotten some exceptions if he wasn't so overwhelmingly greedy.
Obeying the rules is just too painful for him. Maybe that's a strange concept for a developer.

Like this comment
Posted by JO
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 28, 2011 at 12:18 am

I don't get Hohbach's argument that a year is too long a delay to redesign the project. If he sues, it will take a lot longer than a year, especially given the cutbacks in the courts' resources for civil litigation. It will cost a lot of money, and he will likely lose and have to start over from scratch several years down the road.

Maybe he'd rather spend the money and time on attorneys instead of on architects.

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Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 28, 2011 at 8:29 am

How long ago did these issues with properties in this area first surface? 20 years? There has been something going on forever. How about if the City justs buys the land to put in a giant activity center for the elderly and be done with it? Ridiculous ...

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Posted by Frank
a resident of Ventura
on Oct 28, 2011 at 10:41 am

Personally I think he has a point - if you try to get approval for a project you deserve a yes or no - and perhaps an outline of specific issues to resolve with a very high likelihood of success once you have done this. This is just basic fairness that benefits all of us.

He has gotten neither yes, no, nor anything besides change to a "transit oriented" development and we'll think about it.

I am not a fan of suing the city - it wastes tax payers money. But without a clear yes or no and a specific why all who follow will have a tougher time getting their projects through.

Like this comment
Posted by David Pepperdine
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 28, 2011 at 11:28 am

This guy is a bit too full of himself. It's ironic that he's being so childish at his age. Given that anyone can die at any time, it sounds like he's just using his age as an emotional lever. If he kicks the bucket, his heirs can deal with it.

The city should kick this out, in fact kit it far out, to send a message to idiots who behave like this.

Like this comment
Posted by Erstwhile planner
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 28, 2011 at 11:32 am

In the Courthouse Plaza suit filed in the early 1970s, Hobach lost because the two-year time limit had expired on the PC zone under which he was building, and he had no standing to continue the project (even though he had ordered all the steel and it was stored on site). Coincidentally during that time, a "temporary" 50-foot height limit was enacted to prevent the Manhattanization of Palo Alto while the city developed its first comprehensive plan (adopted 1977).

Like this comment
Posted by Who cares
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Oct 28, 2011 at 11:58 am

Suing isn't expensive, he's a lawyer and heads a law firm.
It's expensive for people who have to hire a lawyer, not for him.
The city should show some guts and tell him No.

Like this comment
Posted by TimH
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 28, 2011 at 12:24 pm

It is quite sad that an 89 year old man has apparently learned so little with time. Perhaps his "bucket list" has only one entry, to defeat the City of Palo Alto?

Like this comment
Posted by Gotta Laugh
a resident of South of Midtown
on Oct 28, 2011 at 12:59 pm

[Post removed due to disrespectful comment or offensive language]

Like this comment
Posted by JO
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 29, 2011 at 8:00 am

I think that the City Council thought they were doing Hohbach a favor by not denying the project outright. I think the rules are that if a project is denied (with prejudice), a similar project cannot be considered for approval for at least a year. So, if Hohbach is so motivated to build a project, under the Council's present action, he could potentially get a new project approved in less than a year.

City Council did provide direction for Hohbach to follow by telling him to resubmit a project under PTOD zoning because PTOD was specifically designed to accommodate mixed-use projects, and sets out the parameters for building such projects.

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