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Council Kicks Back 'Big Box' Housing Development

'I’m really offended to the point of being angry,' said Council Member Karen Holman.

The Palo Alto City Council once again dealt a setback Monday night to a developer trying to build a large, mixed-use building on contaminated land near California Avenue.

The Park Plaza project, at 195 Page Mill Road and 2865 Park Boulevard, is a three-story mixed-use complex that would sit on 2.5 acres of land. Council had been asked by city staff to vote the project up or down once and for all.

The project has been tied up since 2006, and underwent a few big revisions in order to comply with the Comprehensive Plan and zoning laws. Last year, Council asked the developer, Harold Hohbach, to change the design from condos to a mixed-use rental building that would conform to Pedestrian Transit Oriented Development zoning.

The Architecture Review Board signed off on the design, which calls for 84 rental apartments, including 17 affordable housing units, and 50,467 of ground floor research and development space.

The plan also calls for an underground parking garage, the construction of which would, according to Patch columnist Bob Moss, expose a plume of toxic water flow containing hazardous gases leftover from the HP Superfund legacy.

Moss sued the city in 2006 after City Council originally approved the project, because he believed Mr. Hohbach skirted environmental review laws that would prohibit construction on a site with high levels of contamination.

That lawsuit is still in progress, and any action taken by City Council to move the project forward could still be shot down if Mr. Moss prevails.

The energy in the room grew tense as both Mr. Moss and the applicant presented their cases to the Council.

Andrew Bachus, an attorney representing Mr. Hohbach, said that the six-year long process with which the project has been held up by the city is a perfect example of bad government.

“It has resulted in an unjustifiably lengthy process, and is frankly inexplicable,” he said. Moving forward with the building would create “a new, vibrant, exciting pedestrian-centric project” that could help Palo Alto meet state-required housing requirements, he said.

Bachus, and James Jans, another attorney representing Mr. Hohbach, asked council to vote the project up or down and stop delaying it further.

Mr. Moss, in voicing his complaints, argued that Council should not even be considering a project that was rejected by the Planning Commission and that "fails the basic test of compliance, compatibility, and looking appropriate in a residential zone."

“I hope you put this to bed once and for all,” said Moss.

Council Members were divided over what to do. Karen Holman came out first against what she called a "big box" housing project, motioning to deny the application.

“This is a site that has a lot of promise,” she said. “I think what we have with this project though is that it also has in this particular case resulted in a project that is not supportable.”

Holman said the applicant has not been responsive enough to the concerns of the ARB.

Vice Mayor Greg Scharff disagreed, however, advocating the need for new rental units in order to meet the requirements in the Comprehensive Plan.

“I will be supporting this project,” he said. “I think the opportunity to provide rental housing—especially as rental prices are rising 10 percent per year—I think having an opportunity like this is something we should take.”

Scharff noted that the project is right next to Caltrain, and that the construction area would be inside a recently designated “priority housing development area.”

After a substitute motion was put forth that would give Mr. Hohbach another chance to come back with better designs, Ms. Holman grew uncharacteristically upset.

“I’m really offended to the point of being angry,” said Holman, “and I don’t know if I’ve ever said that from the dais.”

Holman was frustrated that after so many years, city staff would once again be burdened with the task of working out design changes on a project that she believes should have died on the vine.

“I feel like we don’t get very good projects often times,” she said, noting that Architectural Review Board members often tell her that they get design proposals that are simply “good enough” but not actually “good.”

“This community deserves better,” she said.

Eventually, the council unanimously voted to give Hohbach’s team another month to come back with new designs that are more pedestrian-friendly, more seamlessly integrated with adjacent buildings and uses, and that offer a strong relationship between the street and residential units.

Wendie Karel June 05, 2012 at 06:28 PM
Irvin, probably not!
Richard June 05, 2012 at 09:21 PM
Irvin, adequate housing would still not lower the high cost of living in Palo Alto so people will still live together to lower their housing costs. And what about the increased traffic more housing brings? I don't see Palo Alto building more roads.
sister madly June 06, 2012 at 03:04 AM
@irvin... in this area "doubling up" has more to do with the insane cost of living, in palo alto than lack of housing units. i do think more units are needed however, to drive the prices down - as if that will ever happen.
sister madly June 06, 2012 at 03:05 AM
i kinda like it.
Andrew Boone June 06, 2012 at 04:29 PM
Richard, the cost of housing is primarily determined by the market forces of supply ans demand. The demand for housing in Palo Alto is high because there are so many jobs here and due to the high quality of life available to residents. The supply of housing is restricted by exclusionary zoning policies that make it illegal to build apartments or small condos in most of the city. Traffic congestion would be REDUCED with more housing built in Palo Alto, especially housing built in mixed-use developments located near good transit, like the proposed Park Plaza project. The high housing prices and resulting severe jobs-housing imbalance in Palo Alto require most workers to commute long distances to jobs in Palo Alto - and this is the main source of our traffic congestion. Finally, building more roads is counterproductive to combating traffic congestion. Many studies show that when road capacity for vehicles is increased, that capacity is inevitable filled up with more vehicles, and the resulting higher traffic volumes and speeds decrease the number trips taken by walking, bicycling, and transit, which further worsens traffic congestion. LA is a great example of this failed policy. To reduce the high cost of housing and reduce traffic congestion at the same time, Palo Alto should be allowing the construction of higher-density mixed-use housing along El Camino Real.

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