Saturday, October 16, 2010

More Letters to the City

I like to write letters. I enjoy the act of typing a letter (unless it's a thank you note, which are never typed), putting it in an envelope, and mailing it. I like to write bread and butter notes, the one page thank you letters to friends who have had us to dinner or done something for us. These days, one gets so few opportunities to actually write letters, but I embrace them when they come along.

Emails are a poor substitute, particularly for a Luddite such as myself. But I don't keep my head in the sand: I recognize them as the method of communication of our time, and I am a heavy email user. In my job, I get upwards of 200 emails a day (not counting spam), so I spend a great deal of time responding to email. It is an extremely convenient way of communicating, particularly when working on a massive project like the Ed Roberts Campus, which requires me to have several ongoing conversations at the same time.

As 62nd Street followers will recall, Tom and I asked the City of Berkeley to waive the requirement for a Surety Bond for completing the project. We had even offered to put up a Completion Bond covering a portion of the work. There are several reasons for this: the big one, however, is that we have been bilked out of so much money on permit fees that our cash flow is suffering.

So yesterday, Joan MacQuarrie, the Chief Building Official for the City of Berkeley, let us know that they will not waive this requirement for us. I won't quote her entire email, but her reasoning is that the City is concerned that they may end up with an unfinished and abandoned building that could be a haven to drug dealers and squatters.

Since the house on 62nd Street has been abandoned for 20 years, had a squatter living in it that the City spent years dealing with, and was a refuge for drug dealers, we're not exactly certain what they think we are doing. If a drug house for squatters was the plan, why would we have even unlocked the front gate? That mission was already accomplished.

But this gave me the opportunity to flex my letter writing muscle:

Hello Joan MacQuarrie,

I am responding to the email you sent to Tom today regarding the Bond Waiver Request.

I first want to congratulate you, as you have done something that few people have managed to do: you have offended me. I tend to be pretty thick skinned, but your arguments have offeneed and angered me.

To begin, I am amazed and awed with the City's reasoning that we are being held to the bond requirement because you "had many situations over the years where houses have been left on cribs, the work incomplete, the job abandoned, buildings left unoccupied for the homeless and drug users to squat. The city and the neighborhood end up with blight and an unsafe building and neighborhood." Noble words, but have you not been paying attention? The lot on 62nd Street has been abandoned, neglected, and had a squatter for the last 20 years. There is a video about the building: "Shelter: A Squatumentary" about squatting in the Bay Area (I would be happy to loan you my copy of this video). There were drug problems, shootings, and arrests made at this property.

I would suggest you have a conversation with Officer Spencer Fomby, who I believe is the Beat Sergeant (Berkeley PD) for 62nd Street. When he learned we had purchased the house, he stopped by to tell us that he was "very happy" that someone was finally addressing an ongoing blight problem in the neighborhood. Perhaps you should also speak with our neighbors, all of whom were sick and tired of the squatter, the drug problems, and living next to a boarded up house. They are all thrilled about what we are doing, and sickened by the amount of trouble we are having getting through the City's permit processes.

So your concern is that this property will end up with squatters and as a drug haven - that has already happened. That is so last year. We are here to FIX that problem. If you have spent any time on 62nd Street between King and California, you may notice the beginnings of a renaissance on that block. People are fixing up the houses and developing pride in our block. We are proud to be part of that process.

Let me also clarify that Tom and I are not a corporation: we are two individuals who are passionate about old houses, and have spent years working on houses in Berkeley. We have won a preservation award from BAHA, we have restored several blighted properties, and we are committed to improving our neighborhood (South Berkeley). We are not developers - we are a couple who have raised our children here, who run non profits here, and who have worked diligently to improve the quality of our City.

I'd also like to point out that, as we are not licensed contractors, we are ineligible to obtain a bond. The only way we could do that would be to put up the ENTIRE amount of the improvements in escrow. Do you seriously expect that all Berkeley home owners will do this in the future? If so, you are certainly creating an environment that is unfriendly to home owners, and that will make many many more people do un-permitted work (a big problem in the City already).

If you are so concerned about buildings being left on cribs to deteriorate, I'd also like to invite you to stop by the Gill Tract in Albany, and visit the Cheney Cottage. Because of the City's implacable processes, that house has been sitting there, in two pieces, for 5 months. This is a house that is a historic property, and, had the City allowed us to move it, it would have been well on the way to being restored, it would be providing much needed housing, and it would be a jewel in what has been a blighted neighborhood. Instead, it continues to deteriorate while we wait for the City to allow us to do something good for the neighborhood.

I have said this before, and I will say it again: we are taking a blighted property in a distressed neighborhood, and not only restoring it but also saving an endangered historic building and bringing that house into this neighborhood, to help bring the neighborhood back. The City has done little to help, and has cost us significant amounts of money and delays, which have also caused damage to both houses.

As I believe we have showed time and time again (in our earlier home restorations, in our work to save the Cheney Cottage, in my work on the Ed Roberts Campus), we are "get it done" people. I still cannot understand why the City isn't rallying behind us, cheering us on as we try to do something right for this property and this neighborhood. But I am respectfully asking that you get out of our way, waive the Bond Requirement, and let us get this project done. The neighborhood, and the City of Berkeley, will thank you for it.

Thank you.


I recognize that this blog is at risk of needing a name change: the sub heading might soon have to become "How A Gay Couple in Berkeley Spent Years Raging Against the Machine" It is tedious, right? But we still have high hopes that, before the rains start, we will get the approval to move the Cheney Cottage. We hope that soon, this blog will again be about the process of moving and restoring two historic houses.

We keep waiting.....


  1. We hope that soon, this blog will again be about the process of moving and restoring two historic houses.

    I love the sound of unwarranted optimism in the afternoon.

    (If it were me, I'd be at the point of either suing or shooting somebody.)

  2. Let me suggest that we mount a letter-writing campaign on behalf of your project. I'll try and find time to compose my own letter in the next day or two. If anyone else wants to join me, post your comment here too.

  3. Hey, I'm the "squatter", Steven DeCaprio. I'm glad to see someone doing something positive with that house after years of abandonment. What did you think of the documentary or shall I say "squatumentary"? Good luck navigating Berkeley's sprawling bureaucracy. I find it strange that the city is preventing progress, and blaming squatters. I don't know anyone who occupies houses actively being remodeled. I really hate being scapegoated like that, but Berkeley is strange. Is that why you're moving the house closer to the Oakland city limit which is the back property line? ;-)