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Council Approves ‘Hollowed Out Box’ Above Toxic Plume

Mixed-use building approved over site known to have high levels of TCE.

A four-year effort by developer Harold Hohbach to build a three-story building on Page Mill Road came to an end Monday night, after City Council members dismissed concerns over design, toxic chemical exposure, and environmental review, voting unanimously to move the project forward.

The proposed building, a 152,091 sq. ft. mixed use space with 82 rental units, 47,917 sq. ft. of R&D space, and up to 2,400 sq. ft. of retail space, has been under intense scrutiny since it was first proposed in 2005.

The site containing dangerous quantities of Trichloroethylene, or TCE, which is known to cause cancer, birth defects, and other health issues.

Barron Park Association Foundation member and Patch contributor Bob Moss has been fighting the development for years, ever since learning that contaminated groundwater has flowing underground on both sides of Page Mill Road at levels exceeding what are considered safe by the EPA.

At the site approved for construction Monday night—195 Page Mill Road—a Hewlett Packard study detected between 23,000 and 150,000 micrograms per cubic meter of TCE soil gas concentraion, far above the EPA’s safe limit of 0.5 micrograms per cubic meter.

Hobach’s team has responded to these concerns by agreeing to place both a soil venting system and a full vapor barrier beneath the underground parking level. The system, once installed, will be monitored and the results will be reported to both the City of Palo Alto and the Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Moss, who has filed a lawsuit to stop the project, told Council Monday night that even with such a barrier in place, the best it will be able to do, according to modeling paid for by Hobach, is reduce volatile organic compound (VOC) vapors like TCE by as much as five orders of magnitude (factors of 10) below their current levels. That would bring the maximum TCE concentration at the site's indoor air levels down to 1.5 micrograms per cubic meter—a level considered more than adequate by Hohbach and the Water Board, and by virtue of their vote, City Council.

Council members did agree on a condition of approval that requires Hohbach to diligently monitor vapor concentrations for the first six months after construction and at regular intervals thereafter.

Their primary, concern, however, had to do with the building’s design, which Council Member Pat Burt referred to as “a hollowed out box.”

“If I were able to go back in time, I would not have supported a box structure like this,” said Burt.

As it was, though, the applicant had made a good faith effort to follow the rigid process laid out by the city, said Burt, and should be rewarded for playing by the rules.

“I think we need to honor that process,” he said.

Another subject of concern to council members was the lack of designated retail space—an issue addressed by Vice Mayor Greg Scharff, who offered an amendment directing Hohbach to make his best effort to provide 1,200 sq. ft. of space for food and beverage onsite, or, failing that, 2,400 sq. ft. for another public-serving retail space, not including financial, legal, accounting or medical use.

City staff recommended that council approve the Mitigated Negative Declaration and Architectural Review application for the project, and the council unanimously voted to do just that, with Council Member Gail Price absent.

The project will include an at-grade landscaped plaza within a recessed building area that will allow visibility and pedestrian access to the interior courtyard.

At earlier council meetings, council members had kicked the project back to Hohbach, insisting that it better facilitate a pedestrian environment by reducing building mass and by installing a pedestrian plaza, adding balconies, and installing the retail space to serve as a “transitional element” between the building’s tenants and neighboring facilities.


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Doug June 26, 2012 at 04:16 PM
Your math is off. Reducing 23,000–150,000 μg/m^3 by five orders of magnitude means dividing by 10^5 = 100,000, making the result 0.23–1.5 μg/m^3. Where you got the number 4,100 from I can't imagine. I'm sure it's a coincidence that this error just happens to match the overblown and biased tone of the rest of this article, which I'm sure has nothing to do with the fact that the NIMBY activist filing a lawsuit to stop it just happens to be a contributor on this site.
Wendie Karel June 26, 2012 at 04:38 PM
Do we REALLY need to put residential housing on a Super Fund site? Has it come to this?
Aaron Selverston June 26, 2012 at 06:11 PM
The number 4,100 was taken from an earlier report on the subject. Your absolutely right, though, the number is lower. I've updated the number to 1.5. Still three times what EPA recommends for residential indoor air. Thanks for the catch!

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