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 wish...to begin the project before his 90th birthday this December.