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.

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