Friday, July 30, 2010

Guess I Spoke Too Soon

The mishegoss with the Permit Center is unceasing. We've started to refer to the Permit Center as "Dysfunction Central"

Here's the latest: the one missing piece for the Delaney House has been the Soils Report. This is the report that we were told had to be done. We thought it was pretty unnecessary, as did the Soils Engineer, but we paid to have it done, waited 3 weeks to get it, and now have to turn it in to get our permit.

So on Monday, Tom went down to turn in the Soils Report. But the Permit Center doesn't let people turn in reports. You have to make an appointment. So Tom asked for an appointment and was given one - for Thursday, three days later.

Yesterday, Tom went to the Permit Center, waited the seemingly standard 45 minutes past his appointment time, and was finally called to the desk. When he got there, he handed them the report, and left.

This is the kind of thing that would make me go insane. I'm extremely thankful that I have someone who is balanced and able to let these things roll off their back - I would have gone postal.

Meanwhile, Aaron Sage, the one person in the Permit Center who we think is actually trying to assist us, got the final corrections on the Delaney House finished quickly, and everything is good to go.


Now we have to talk to one more person and get his sign off on the Soils Report. But since there was a three day delay, and the City has furlough days on Fridays, we won't know if we're getting our permit until Monday at the earliest.

This is a broken process, and the City of Berkeley has no interest in fixing it. Once again, the forward-looking, innovative City of Berkeley embraces a process that tends to alienate the citizens. The amount of work done without permits in Berkeley is huge, and I understand why everyone does it that way. There is no good reason to get a permit. I kind of regret that we started the permit process. We should have just moved the houses without asking, and then hoped no one would notice.

But who knows, maybe by Monday we will have a permit. Or my head will have exploded.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The City of Berkeley Comes Through

It looks like we will get our permits for moving the Delaney House next week.

Joan MacQuarrie, the Chief Building Official, initially had said that she couldn't change the requirements, but she met with Dan Marks, Director of Planning and Development. Yesterday afternoon, Tom and I received the following email:

I’m cc’ing Tom White and Dmitri Belser on this e-mail.

We’re reconsidering the request to forgo the bond requirement for the ‘back house’, so once everything else on this permit is in order, you can go ahead and approve for Building and Safety.

Here’s why:

· The house currently on the lot is just being moved to the back.

· Tom White and Dmitri Belser do seem to have a track record in this work.

· Bonds will still be required for moving the house from UC to the lot and to complete the work on that structure.

· And, we always have the ability to use our code enforcement tools, if needed.

Let me know if you have questions.

So what is next? We have received the Soils Study we paid for, so on Monday Tom will call the Permit Center to make an appointment to turn that in. Hopefully, he'll be able to go in on Tuesday, turn in the Soils Study and, if all goes well, we will have our permit for the Delaney House.

We're hopeful that later next week, the process of moving the house will begin. Elliott has to move out, and we need to cap the gas line and the sewer line. A surveyor from Moran Engineering will come to mark the exact location where the house should be placed. Then Phil Joy can separate the house from the basement, and put the upper storey on wheels. We'll then take down the walls of the basement, and the house can start it's trip 4 feet to the West and 25 feet to the South.

So expect more postings and more pictures. Finally, things are going to start happening again.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Letter to Joan

The Chief Building Official in Berkeley is named Joan MacQuarrie.

The somewhat Flintstone-ian sound of her name is appropriate: She is tough, a rule follower. She is passionately committed to enforcing the rules and regulations of the Permit Center, with little regard to whether or not the rules make sense. She's a very professional, to the letter of the law kind of person. Quirky. Pleasant. Polite.

Joan is the last person left to sign off on the permits for 62nd Street. We have done it all, including the soils report, which we are poised to turn in.

But there is one more step in the process, one final hurdle we are attempting to remove, that will enable us to start work again on the Delaney House and Cheney Cottage restorations. Midway through the process, the City decided that Tom and I needed to post a surety bond toward the completion of the project.

A surety bond is something that, until now, has generally been required for large capital projects. Though the 62nd Street project seems large to us, surety bonds generally cover things like the Bay Bridge project, rebuilding the MacArthur maze, or painting the Golden Gate Bridge. Our project is tiny, not run by a large corporation but by two guys with a couple houses.

On Monday, Tom wrote her the following email:

Ms. MacQuarrie,

I recently met with Ellie Leard and Eric Angress, my construction contractor, to discuss Ellie's House Move permit corrections (attached) for a blighted 1870's-era single family residence located on 62nd Street, Berkeley 94703, also known as the Delaney House. This property has been vacant for approximately 20 years, aside from squatters who battled the previous owner and Berkeley Police for over 2 years. Ellie's corrections include requirements for a surety bond or escrow account, and liability insurance, by owner, and she said that I should contact you directly if I have any questions or concerns about these house move requirements.

Dmitri Belser, my husband and co-owner of this property, and I would like to formally request that you waive the requirements in the Delaney House Move permit correction letter, and the Cheney Cottage, for the surety/cash bond, escrow account and liability insurance by owner for the following reasons:

1) Dmitri and I have successful prior experience as owner/remodelers restoring four older (1904-1910) Berkeley homes, two of which (our two houses on Parker St.) won a BAHA Preservation Award in 2008;

2) Dmitri and I are contracting with Andus Brandt (Blackbird Design), Eric Angress Construction and Phil Joy House Moving to move both the Delaney House and the City of Berkeley Landmark Cheney Cottage, now sitting in two pieces in the University Village Gill Tract in Albany. Both Eric and Phil carry contractor's completion bonds and liability insurance and all three have experience with us on past house lifts/moves and/or remodeling projects;

3) Dmitri and I have already deposited a $50,000 cash completion bond with UCB's Real Estate Division that they are holding to guarantee our moving the Cheney Cottage off their Albany Village lot. We have already expended over $70,000 in fees paid to our architect, designer, engineer, house mover, construction contractor, arborist, and City Permit Officials. We have already committed major sums from our personal finances towards completion of this project;

4) Both of these projects involve remodeling relatively small single family residences, not vast capital outlays and risks typical of large scale multifamily developments. The Delaney House has only to move 5 feet away from the lot line and approximately 20 feet towards the back of the lot;

5) Dmitri and I are not for-profit developers with deep pocket investors waiting to make big returns. We are self-financed, independent owner-remodelers with limited cash reserves. We are saving and restoring these two historic single family homes because we are committed to improving South Berkeley, where we have lived and raised our two children for over 22 years. We are committed to improving the existing housing stock, adding additional rental housing, and improving a depressed, crime-ridden neighborhood. Berkeley Police Office Spencer Fomby, our local beat Sargeant, has already complimented us on the improvements we've made to the 62nd Street property, including removing trees that used to screen sidewalk games of craps/dice. During the time we have lived in South Berkeley, Dmitri has also collaborated with Federal, State, Regional and City managers to complete the Ed Roberts Campus in his role as President of the ERC Board of Directors;

6) We have already completed one permitted house move in April 2010 for the Cheney Cottage, from the UC Berkeley campus to Albany Village. We have proven our personal commitment and professional follow-through in this regard. We have also submitted all the other required permit applications and corrections related to the move for the two houses on 62nd St, including demolition and Engineering/PSL permits for the Delaney House and building permits for both houses. The only outstanding correction items for the demolition and PSL permit is the utility/sewer disconnect clearances, and the soil engineer's report for the building permits, due for submittal this week;

7) Dmitri and I can't afford to restore these blighted and neglected historic properties, and provide the housing Berkeley wants, if we have to commit more money for additional surety/cash bonds or escrow accounts and liability insurance requirements. We have already committed large sums towards the completion of this project, our contractors carry significant liability insurance, and the UCB cash bond will be returned to us after the Cheney Cottage is sited at our lot on 62nd St.;

8) the house move permit application form we first received from the Permit Service Center earlier this year did not include the bond and insurance requirements stipulated in Ellie's correction letter. We have received three versions of the House Move Permit application, the first of which we received soon after we purchased the 62nd Street property and the Cheney Cottage. These bond and insurance requirements were not stated on the form at the time we committed ourselves to the house moves.

Thanks for your time and consideration of our request. I look forward to your favorable reply and to progressing with the restoration of these two historic properties as soon as possible.

Best regards,
Tom White

So that was Monday. We are now spending our time biting our nails and waiting. Will the City relent? Will the City finally take a step toward helping us complete this project? Or will the unbending and immovable bureaucracy that we have encountered to date continue to implacably work toward defeating the project?

Many of the readers of this blog have commented that we need to declare war on the City of Berkeley, and get this project in gear again. Our friends are frustrated and angry, and have many ideas as to how to create a storm around this issue. As everyone knows, in Berkeley, it's easy to create a firestorm of controversy.

We are hoping this can be resolved peacefully, by the appropriate decision of the Chief Building Official. So we're waiting. But if the decision doesn't go our way, we're not giving up. We are going to complete the 62nd Street project - though at this point, it'll be the last one we do in Berkeley. If we take on another house restoration, we'll do it in a City that will appreciate it, such as Oakland. The people we have spoken to in Oakland have told us that the City of Oakland would love to have us doing this type of work there, and we would meet with significantly less resistance. I have no idea if this is true - but it sounds good to me.

Stay tuned for further updates. Not much will happen until this issue is resolved.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Rebuilding the Door

When Steven, the 62nd Street squatter, and his buddies left the Delaney House, they left behind a lot of wreckage.

Steven, you will recall, was living in the Delaney House illegally, and the family that owned the house had to have arrested to get out. We learned a lot about him because, after we bought the house, we found a note from him (to future squatters). When I googled him, I came up with "Shelter: A Squatumentary", a film about squatters in the Bay Area that heavily features the Delaney House, circa 2006. Tom and I bought a copy of the video, and there is an entire segment done on the Delaney House. (You can see the trailer at - our house is the one with the cops out front and in the front hall)

So when they were all finally evicted, they had trashed the house. Inside, several doors had been kicked in, including the bedroom doors and the door to the back of the house (by the bathroom).

The front bedroom door was destroyed, and had been removed when the house was cleaned up to be sold ("cleaned up" being a relative term). But the door to the back bedroom, with the top panels broken, was still there. The door to the back had the top rail, the bottom rail, and the two lower panels intact, but the rest was broken out.

We didn't throw away the doors, but we have often looked at them sadly, wondering what would make someone want to break a door that had hung there for 120 years. And, of course, Tom and I are crazy - so we knew WE weren't going to throw them away.

In the basement, there were also several matching 4 panel doors, all of them pretty much unusable. Because the height of the basement is only 6'6", the doors were cut down short, and although in relatively good shape, they were too short to bring upstairs.

So this weekend, we brought one up. I had measured it, and realized it was originally the same as the door to the back rooms. The bottom rail (below the two smaller panels) was cut down, but the rest of the door matched the broken door.

I started by taking apart the door from the downstairs, salvaging the two top panels and middle stile, plus the middle rail and the latch side of the door. I then took the door to the back, and removed the middle rail (otherwise known as the lock rail, which was badly broken). The two middle rails were identical, including the tenons, so I glued the new middle rail into the back door. Then, after removing nails and glue, I slid the top panels and the middle stile into place.

Now i had to replace the latch stile of the door. The existing door had about two feet of the bottom of the latch stile, and the piece from the salvaged door had the top part. So I cut off the latch stile just below the middle rail, removing most of the damaged section. Then I cut down the latch stile from the salvage door, and reassembled.

The repaired door - existing bottom rail, top rail, hinge stile and lower panels, with "new" middle rail, upper panels and stile, and a hybrid latch style.

The result is not beautiful (yet) - it needs a lot of filling, sanding, painting, new knobs and eschutcheons. But the two old doors have been united into one, a door that has always been part of the Delaney House, even though it in two places.
Another view - work still to be done, but Roxie and Barnaby seem appreciative.

We've also managed to salvage two panels that will fit in the back bedroom door - so once we take that door apart, we can slip in the new upper panels, and the two doors will be back in service.

This is the kind of stuff that makes Tom and I deeply happy. Go know.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Despite Berkeley, Progress Being Made

Of course, there is little news on the permit front, but we continue to work on the house.

While we wait for the Delaney House to be moved, we also are continuing to work on making it more livable. Since the plumbing and wiring are mostly done, we're now turning our attention to things like patching plaster and painting.

So to remind the casual blog reader, this is what the front room of the Delaney House looked like when we bought it:

The four broken windows were covered with plywood, the walls covered with layer upon layer of wallpaper (the last one being a busy 60s flowered paper), and everything was completely filthy.

Now, months later, the room has updated wiring and a working overhead light. The windows have all been fixed, and as of yesterday, the trim has been cleaned, sanded and painted.

We took pictures late in the afternoon, but they don't really do justice to the way the room looks. But hopefully this will give you a taste of how the house is changing. The walls have been painted yellow, and the green trim is now a cool grey with dark blue window sashes.

Our plan is to remove the security bars once the house is lifted. When that will be is anyone's guess.