Editorial: Last chance for Hohbach project

Frustrated council digs in for improvements to large project at Page Mill Road and Park Boulevard

Developer Harold Hohbach's stubbornness in improving the design of his proposed mixed rental housing and research and development project may get him a defeat next time he returns to the City Council, if comments from council members are to be taken seriously.

Tensions and frustrations are rising over about this controversial project, because Hohbach has largely ignored input from the city throughout the long approval and review process.

As things stand now, the developer has been asked one last time to make "substantive" changes to the design of the building to reduce its over-powering mass and create a more pedestrian-friendly ground floor. The project will return to the council in three weeks.

Hohbach wants to build 84 rental units (originally he proposed condominiums) and more than 50,000 square feet of research and development space at 195 Page Mill Road.

The rental housing, which includes 17 below-market-rate (BMR) units on 2.5 acres near the Caltrain station, has attracted the support of housing advocates and city staff, because it will help the city reduce its housing-jobs imbalance and meet our regional housing targets. It also fits nicely with the city's vision of how properties near train stations should be developed.

The saga of this property, which began in 2003, is testament to how a persistent developer who won't budge can end up in a long, drawn out process that can be made to look like it was the city's fault.

Hohbach's first proposal for the 2.5-acre site was for 50,000-plus square feet of research-and-development space and 84 condominiums. The primary change over nine years is that the condos have been replaced with apartments.

The legal and practical problem for the city is that the land is zoned for general manufacturing, one of the least restrictive zoning designations and one that is entirely inappropriate for that site today.

Hohbach has taken advantage of that zoning, which allows him to build a facility with potential laboratory research uses combined with housing, a mix that is unprecedented in the city and that has drawn the opposition of some community members.

But since Hohbach is within the zoning, the primary approvals he needs relate to the design of the project, not its size or uses.

The council has been clear that it finds the design severely lacking, and we agree.

Council member Sid Espinosa called the project a "fortress."

"For folks going down the street, it really creates a mass and a scale that's overwhelming," Espinosa said.

Karen Holman called it "big-box housing," and only voted to keep the project alive after Councilman Pat Burt included provisions in the successful motion that requires Hohbach to do "substantive" changes when he comes back for what could be final approval later this month.

The council is correct to stick to its guns. This is a large and important undeveloped parcel, and we have one chance to approve and get built something that is attractive and well-designed.

The council's suggestions are reasonable revisions that would require the project's public spaces to be more inviting to passers-by and provide a better transition between the development and adjoining properties.

Hohbach displayed his well-known stubborn streak to the council by ignoring their suggestion last October to bring back a project under "pedestrian-and-transit-oriented development (PTOD) zoning.

Hohbach and his attorney understandably said they were not interested in undergoing a new round of hearings before the Architectural and Review Board (ARB) and the Planning Commission that would have been required by such a change and asked for a vote on the plan as submitted.

In 2006, the council approved essentially the same project that was before them this week, but was forced to rescind it when Palo Alto residents and land-use watchdogs Bob Moss and Tom Jordan filed a lawsuit, claiming the project was not doing enough to protect residents from a toxic plume flowing under the property from the Stanford Research Park.

The challenge was not supported by the Regional Water Quality Control Board, which oversees issues regarding the plume. The board approved the proposed safeguards submitted by Hohbach to use a vapor barrier and a ventilation system, which Moss continues to believe are inadequate.

The council wants to support housing near transit and 195 Page Mill fills the bill. But that should not come at the expense of a lousy design. We hope Hohbach finally listens this time and brings back a design that can win council approval so that he can get his begin the project before his 90th birthday this December.


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Posted by Welcome-To-PA's-Future
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 10, 2012 at 9:23 am

> Council member Sid Espinosa called the project a "fortress."

Welcome to the world of high density housing, “New Urbanism”, and the future of California. How is the JCC not one of the ugliest, most fortress-like buildings in California. And the new Alma Plaza has the front of the site sitting almost on the curb of Alma—a twenty-odd foot high wall of Concrete! Not all that "pedestrian friendly".

The Council approved all of these buildings. So what makes Hohback’s so awful?

Sadly, with “New Urbanism” having been adopted, more-or-less, by the Palo Alto City Government, these big ugly buildings are going to be the norm, not the exception, in the future.

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Posted by Jim
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 10, 2012 at 12:24 pm

“New Urbanism” is a design edict from the true believers of global warming. It provides very dense housing next to transportation corridors. Palo Alto is now paying the price for buying into the global warming hysteria. Same thing with high speed rail.

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Posted by Greedy and stubborn
a resident of Monroe Park
on Jun 10, 2012 at 1:56 pm

The combination of extraordinary greed and pathological stubbornness describes this lawyer-developer.
This article describes him a few years ago, exhibiting the same character and greed.Web Link
The original plan should have been rejected, but it has survived thanks to Peter Drekmeier on the council at the time, who voted for it.

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Posted by Jim
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 10, 2012 at 2:22 pm

"The combination of extraordinary greed and pathological stubbornness describes"...the global warming crowd. They don't care how many people need to suffer economic hardship and urban design/planning disasters.

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Posted by Gotta Cry
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 10, 2012 at 3:56 pm

This is not the new modern urbanism.

Are you out of your god forsaken mind? This is an attempt to hoist a wicked ugly, cheap and dated design on the City of Palo Alto for the next 100 years.

The JCC is a specific development that has significant public benefit. As such, we overlook the fact that it spills out over Charleston/San Antonio. This development has one idea in cheap can I build it and how much profit is to be made. Just look at the damage that the new Alma Plaza is doing to the drive along Alma....that building is too big and too close to the street. Not to mention that it has no pedestrian scale appeal along Alma. The City Counsel is correct to say NO.

The site is WAY TOO IMPORTANT to be stained by Harold Hohbach's ill envisioned pile of plaster and profit.

The community begs the Council to JUST SAY NO NO NO NO NO.

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Posted by svatoid
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 10, 2012 at 4:41 pm

You can thank JH, DJ, LF and Friends of Alma plaza for that fiasco. They cost the city a real shopping center. The spineless city council was afraid to stand up to them. And now we have what we have

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Posted by Marcus
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 10, 2012 at 4:46 pm

If the developer were truly "greedy" he would build an expensive office building and not apartments. Apartments cost more to build and earn less rent per square foot.

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Posted by Welcome-To-PA's-Future
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 10, 2012 at 4:57 pm

> Are you out of your god forsaken mind? This is not “New Urbanism”.

Not clear how many people are fully cognizant of the tenets of “New Uranism”. Here’s some material to help fill in the gaps--

Palo Alto set to adopt new vision for housing:
Web Link

Types of Zoning Codes and Formats: Discussion Paper:
Web Link

Design-Oriented Codes

Design-oriented codes (called "form codes" in the Palo Alto Comprehensive Plan) are frequently referred to as "New Urbanist" codes, as they derive from New Urbanist principles of neo-traditional development, and have received considerable attention in new zoning codes beginning in the 1980's. The principles of "New Urbanism" generally include: more traditional design integrated with the street and public spaces; narrower streets; a wider variety of housing types; mixed-use development to minimize the need for automobiles and to encourage transit use; development of town centers to provide for civic uses and commercial services; commercial structures to the sidewalk and oriented toward the street; provision of open space and linkages to residential and commercial uses; and a strong pedestrian orientation.

New Urbanism project heads for council vote:
Web Link

There would seem to be several of the design elements from the City’s Design Paper that can be found in the Hohbach plan.

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Posted by Welcome-To-PA's-Future
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 10, 2012 at 5:08 pm

> The site is WAY TOO IMPORTANT to be stained by
> Harold Hohbach's ill envisioned pile of plaster and profit.

Wasn't there a cement factory on this site, up until recently?

As to the JCC's being a benefit to the community, that's questionable. What is not questionable is that it is big and ugly!

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Posted by svatoid
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 10, 2012 at 5:47 pm

Amusing how people will just not let go of the JCC issue. I find the building quite nice. But I also think that most of the houses in professorville are hideous monstrosities that are a blight on our landscape.

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Posted by Greedy and stubborn
a resident of Monroe Park
on Jun 10, 2012 at 5:59 pm

This project is due back at the end of this month. Need to pay attention to who votes for and who votes against. And who is up for election in November. Will the city manager that is, staff, cave too?
Some of them caved to the Lunds, developers on Alma for a huge office building, of course Jim Baer was working for Lund.
Gotta keep track, people, or we will just keep getting more of the same.November will be here soon.

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Posted by Jim
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 10, 2012 at 6:10 pm

Besides the global warming hysteria that promotes the 'new urbanism', forcing local tranist options, there is the 'below-market-rate (bmr) crowd and' the 'public beneift' crowd that pressure to get what they want. Palo Alto greenies buy into all of it. A developer, in order to build a profitable project, needs to build to the edges of his/her property.

We, in Palo Alto, are getting exactly what we demanded. Don't blame the developer. Palo Alto citizens, and their representives, are the greedy ones.

Oh, and btw, we are going broke.

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Posted by svatoid
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 10, 2012 at 6:22 pm

Jim-do not forget the arbor real project. One of the people who got us the Alma plaza project played a role in losing the Hyatt and having what is there now built. Your are right we have no one to blame but ourselves.

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Posted by Jim
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 10, 2012 at 6:56 pm

svatoid- thank you for another example. Another one is the proposed block development at El Camino and College, the so-called JJ&F site. The BMR crowd took away a proposed public plaza for subsidized housing. Like many other projects, this forced the developer to build to the edge of their property, in this case, without the public plaza.

With all that PA citizens demand, the only way to afford it is to raise taxes, signficantly. The rich can afford it, but most of us cannot. Palo Alto is in a very strange place.

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Posted by Elizabeth
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 11, 2012 at 10:23 am

I'm disguisted with the PA city council, the planning department, building department and the architectural review board. When is the city going to change the setback requirements and the maximum square footage allowed on a lot? The city government is allowing our city to be ruined by hideous, massive structures, built too close to the street. This project should be denied.
This isn't an urban town. It's a suburban town!

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Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 11, 2012 at 10:38 am

"The council wants to support housing near transit..."

Why? Where's the evidence to support this ideology?

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Posted by rem
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 11, 2012 at 11:51 am

rem is a registered user.

NO - NO - NO - NO - NO

Good job Council.

Hope you have a "happy birthday in "retirement" Harold!

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Posted by Wendy
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 11, 2012 at 12:02 pm

Neither New Urbanism nor density mandate ugly design. As designed, this project will be a terrible eyesore. It could be made attractive if Mr. Hohbach cared as much about architecture as he does about proving himself right and making more money than he could possibly spend in his lifetime.

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Posted by Marlene
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 11, 2012 at 12:15 pm

The City has been through this type of process with Mr. Hohbach several times and he seems to get away with it. Time to stop this development and get something we can be proud of.

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Posted by Barbara
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 11, 2012 at 12:16 pm

Please, a FINAL NO NO to this Hohbach project. . .

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Posted by Jim
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 11, 2012 at 12:33 pm

> get something we can be proud of.

How about 20% BMR units (subsidized housing), external park for public use, setbacks with natural landscaping, archetecture that satisfies the local and current flavor(s), businesses that satisfy local demands, walkable paths to public transit...and more?

Why not? After all, we are Palo Alto.

Answer: Nobody will build it, private or public.

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Posted by YIMBY
a resident of University South
on Jun 11, 2012 at 1:46 pm

YIMBY is a registered user.

I spoke in support of this project at the council meeting. I think the city should have approved it then. I agreed with the vice-mayor's proposal to solidify the developer's proposal to 'open-up' the courtyard, but disagreed with Burt's proposal that essentially placed staff and council in the role of the ARB - don't they already have enough on their plates?

All the complaining above - look - all of you have homes - none of your children will be able to live here - unless they inherit your home. Palo Alto has become a "boutique city" - one that is enjoyed by all who visit - but only few can afford to live here. Hohbach will build 84 rentals with 20% affordable - which is no longer a requirement - legally - due to the 2009 Palmer court decision
Web Link

The development is a vast improvement over the vacant, blighed lot that exists there now. Let's not let the perfect stand in the way of the good.

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Posted by Greedy and stubborn,
a resident of Monroe Park
on Jun 11, 2012 at 2:26 pm

Hohbach owns the lot so if it is blighted or unpleasant, he is responsible. Keeping it ugly is a standard developer ploy. Then people parrot: oh it will be so much better if something is built. Heard it at Alma Plaza and at Edgewood Plaza.
As someone above said, new urbanism does not require bad design or greed. Those are Mr. Hohbach's contributions.

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Posted by moi
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 11, 2012 at 3:09 pm

"global warming hysteria."


"global warming denial."


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Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 11, 2012 at 3:46 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

The "build close to the street" is one of the New Urbanism's many perversions of legitimate design policies.

The legitimate origin was to move _stores_ up to the street rather than be separated by parking lots so that people walking on the sidewalks would see activity through the windows and so that people in the stores could be "watchful eyes" on the sidewalks, increasing both security and perception of security for pedestrians.

Because the New Urbanism operates on slogan's without context, it produces results contrary to the original (legitimate) goals: Buildings with tall, long blank walls that make the sidewalks MORE uninviting to pedestrians.

But what can you expect from a "philosophy" that demands designing building to "promote" the use of public transit where there is little or no usable public transit.

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Posted by whocares
a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Jun 11, 2012 at 4:12 pm

The only thing missing from JCC and the Charleston/El Camino project is electric fencing and guard towers to complete their elegance. The city council has lost all sense of civic pride and continues marching on in their ignorance of community enhancement.

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Posted by Zorro
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 11, 2012 at 6:57 pm

Moran, Moss, etc. etc. Just look at the projects that they have held up; just LOOK at the urban blight that they have CAUSED with their lawsuits; just LOOK at the taxpayer money that went into their respective attorney's pockets - "down the rabbit hole", so to speak; just LOOK at how EVERY SINGLE ONE of the projects that they opposed were eventually built, but how EVERY SINGLE ONE of the projects cost more money because of the delays, and how EVERY SINGLE TENANT in the finally-approved projects paid for that out of pocket.

This has nothing to do with "New Urbanism" or anything else, other than pure ego-tripping and "I'll show them" attitudes. The SAME people consistently oppose projects, hold them up, yadda-yadda. What ELSE do these "Council Watchdogs" do, anyway, besides eat and go to the bathroom. I PITY the good citizens of Palo Alto that have their hard earned money subject to the unconscionable delays and whims of this crowd. Pathetic!

As for Karen Holman; I have yet to see a more unimaginative person on the P&T Commission, or on the Council. She is second only to Pat Burt, in that regard. Two peas in a pod, which is exactly the kind of urban structure they should both be confined to.

I can't wait for Burt and Scharf and a few others starting to take credit for Cal Avenue developments.

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Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Jun 11, 2012 at 9:05 pm

The number of square feet and the number of units hasn't changed --- but now it's rental units instead of condos and a good % of BMR units are included.

It's no longer a young trendy millionaire's address but housing for people with normal incomes. THAT's what the community is afraid of.

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Posted by Gotta Cry
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 12, 2012 at 7:37 am

IF the new developments actually had pedestrian scale stores fronting sidewalks I could understand. BUT...these Alma Plaza monoliths drop from the sky to the street creating pedestrian deserts. My neighbors cringe as we drive by the old Alma Plaza site. Lets not confused an urban environment that is pedestrian friendly (University/California) with these developer temples to profit.

PLEASE...this is a ill envisioned, cheap looking, disaster.


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Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 12, 2012 at 9:51 am

"housing for people with normal incomes"

Why do you think people with normal incomes should be put in hideous ghetto-buildings like Hohbach's?

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Posted by horrified
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 22, 2012 at 11:28 pm

What a horrible, hideous eyesore, this monstrosity which used to be Alma Plaza! How on earth could it ever have been approved? Who is this Hohbach? Why let him loose on our formerly attractive city ? Alma Street has always been a pleasure to drive down, leafy and green - and suddenly it becomes nightmarish, just before East Meadow; looks like a prison has just been built. Whoever designed/and approved/ this ghastly structure has absolutely NO sense of aesthetics. It's an awful shame.

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