Blogging Bayport Alameda

November 15, 2012

Take it back to the start

Filed under: Alameda, Development — Tags: — Lauren Do @ 6:05 am

I don’t know if you all were aware of this but the Historic Advisory Board has been attempting to revise the Historic Preservation Ordinance for some time now.   The purpose is to, ostensibly, preserve more of Alameda’s historic assets, however sometimes there’s a pretty fine line that the HAB walks between trying to protect those assets and just being super difficult.

Now I don’t claim to know much about preserving Historic assets, but I know that sometimes, I feel as though the HAB tends to trend on the side of “Preservation at all costs” even though there is a real cost to homeowners and business owners and not everything can be done at the idealistic perfection that I think most people would like.   Generally no one ever says this to the HAB though.   But this public speaker did and for that, I salute her:

To briefly summarize: her house is awesome and old and she did a great job of renovating it.   However she got a lot of push back when she first started the process way back when, but now everyone loves it.   Sounds like HAB is making this process way too difficult and it is already pretty onerous to begin with.   If  City keep going down this path way they’re going to do the opposite of what they really want to do which is maintain historic assets.

Word.   This lady for the HAB!



  1. What a great contribution to this conversation. I like when she said ‘’helping the homeowner accomplish their goals”. I think that should be part of their purpose statement. It takes alot of money and dedication to restore hsitorical properties — the HAB would be better served if they recognize this and partner with homeowners willing to take on these type projects.

    Comment by Karen Bey — November 15, 2012 @ 7:28 am

  2. Between the difficulties at the permit office (one reviewer says yes; the next says no; the third goes back to yes), and some fairly nit-picky stuff due to the HAB rules, our renovations have been difficult. At one point, we were asked to return our basement space a prior owner had turned into an illegal unit to “what it was in 1903.” Well, we had no clue, but there for sure were no electrical panels, modern plumbing, tied to the foundation bolting, etc. in 1903. We were allowed one overhead light in a quite large space, which we now utilize for storage, which means we have dark corners which are trip hazards. I think common sense should prevail over some esthetic that makes people just give up and either do unpermitted work or leave things to rot. We received a preservation award for one of our properties, but I was tearing my hair out with the City for several years. I remember hearing a long discussion some years ago at the Planning Board which went to Council over a 3″ height “violation” on a property renovation on Fernside. Waste of time and money.

    Comment by Kate Quick,. — November 15, 2012 @ 7:31 am

  3. I know I can tend to want things to be very simple, so here is my opinion. I believe the HAB should be advisory only with no jurisdiction other than to send a recommendation on to the planning board. I believe the planning board should then try to incorporate the HAB findings into a project as much as possible. As always there is an appeal process that goes all the way to the city council. I don’t believe the HAB should be able to hold any project up. We already have a planning and building dept.
    However I do think we should still have the HAB, and perhaps they could become a little more user friendly.

    Comment by John P.(L) — November 15, 2012 @ 8:03 am

  4. 3 not a bad idea

    Comment by M.I. — November 15, 2012 @ 8:30 am

  5. The planning board will likely be discussing these issues in January. I think the process needs to clearly define the goals and purpose of the Board’s mission, and clearly define how it fits into the rest of the city’s processes.

    When he ordinance was broadened in the early 00’s, there were 10 planners and 6 admin staff, now there are three planners (soon to be four hopefully) and two admin staff. There isn’t as much bandwidth for dealing with long, drawn out processes.

    Comment by JKW — November 15, 2012 @ 8:49 am

  6. so MI, we should probably drag our old you know whats to that meeting so John can here from us.

    Comment by John P.(L) — November 15, 2012 @ 9:42 am

  7. I went to HAB meeting last time the draft ordinance was discussed and asked them not to adopt the rolling 50 year cut off for historic review and leave it at before 1943. I think I’m done.

    Comment by M.I. — November 15, 2012 @ 10:02 am

  8. It’s a power trip and it makes no rational sense. I’m all for preservation, and exterior changes do have to be carefully considered, but at the end of the day, just because something is old does not make it good. There were just as many lousy design decisions made in 1908 as there are today. Where does it stop? Sorry, we can’t bury electric lines in that neighborhood because they didn’t bury them in 1926. You’ll have to rip out that Sub-Zero and put in an ice box, you know, the kind with the chunk of ice? And apparently the board seems to think that homeowners who buy fixer uppers have an endless stream of cash to hire architects and engineers to draw and re-draw plans for months on end. I went to bat some years ago for a neighbor who had literally purchased the closest thing to a shack that could be found in Alameda. The hoops the man had to jump through to make it habitable were absurd, costly, and a complete waste of time and money. He finally succeeded, but how much better the final result would have been if his project budget hadn’t been whittled away by the petulant demands of the HPO?

    Comment by Denise Shelton — November 15, 2012 @ 10:44 am

  9. Denise, I can’t argue with anything you have said in your post. To me the HAB needs to become a more friendly and perhaps useful board than it is at this time. Mark actually sat on the board and is also a contractor, so I would tend to listen to his input .
    perhaps the HAB needs to have a more diverse make up than what is now in place.

    Comment by John P.(L) — November 15, 2012 @ 10:53 am

  10. So our experience with HAB, when we learned our 1941 Windsor house was “historic” was a little perplexing, but in it worked out. Supposedly they wanted our windows to look the same as the “original” windows, and they wanted very detailed plans. Our drawing showing that the replacement window sill would look like the existing sill seemed to be important. External grids on the windows seemed to be really important, notwithstanding that a survey of replaced windows in our neighborhood showed that all had internal grids. Our proposed replacement of a kitchen casement window with a double-hung window seemed to be OK, as was the installation of a French door (full light) in place of the half-light back door. They had no interest in what we were doing inside the kitchen. Ultimately, the only changes we had to make were three additional pages in our plans with all the details, and we had to submit four additional sets of plans, all wet-signed by our designer. It meant several late-night drawing sessions on my part, and about 10 days of delay. Our contractor, Mark Schmidt, managed the process well.

    Comment by Tom Schweich — November 15, 2012 @ 12:44 pm

  11. I believe Alameda is the only city I have worked in that required all plans, even copies to be “wet signed”, I have never heard a good reason for it to be that way. I can remember going to the Berkeley hills several times for the same plans because they had to be “wet Signed”. Maybe someone from the city can explain why that is so critical.

    Comment by John P.(L) — November 15, 2012 @ 1:36 pm

  12. Part of the purpose of the revisions is to make standards upgrades for historic buildings that would be able to be approved automatically by staff instead of cluttering up Design Review and HAB with minor issues. At least that is what I understand from people who have been working intensively on the process.

    As per #10 comment, no matter what the age of your house, there are not now nor are there anticipated to be, any requirements on design for interiors. You can do anything you want on the inside.

    One thing that people may not realize when trying to do things to a pre-1942 house, is that you are entitled to use “Historic Building Code” when making alterations.

    Comment by Kevis Brownson — November 15, 2012 @ 3:02 pm

  13. I put a new foundation into my fairly large circa 1896 house a few years back and ran into some permitting woes. I have a couple of large storage rooms in the basement from which I had to remove light fixtures and electrical outlets in order for them to remain classified as “storage.” Right now, you need miners lights to see what is in the rooms. OK, to be fair, you may actually need a miners pick to get into the recesses of one of them, but I digress. There were a couple other hiccups that were solved by some creative thinking by my awesome contractor running the project. Overall he deemed the Alameda permit process to be “better than Berkeley,” but he went on to say that that was a very low bar.

    Comment by Chris Muir — November 15, 2012 @ 3:09 pm

  14. Re #2- Quite a few years ago there was an amnesty program to help people who had work done themselves or that prior owners had done work without permits — to help them legalize these additions and remodels. I wonder if there is any way to restart this program. Certainly it is to all of our benefit as a city to bring these early remodels into compliance.

    Comment by Kevis Brownson — November 15, 2012 @ 3:16 pm

  15. as far as I know that program still exists.

    Comment by John P.(L) — November 15, 2012 @ 3:47 pm

  16. #14. I don’t think that will happen as long as the way these prior illegal alterations are dealt with now is to call them “violations” and triple charge the owner for all permits and fees. A real cash cow for the City. We were getting letters from the City that actually suggested we could go to jail if we didn’t do what they said because of the “violation” that we didn’t have anything to do with and were not aware that it was a “violation”. I wish there had been an amnesty. We spent thousands of dollars on the permits and fees and demolition and rebuilding. We had lived next door for twenty-five years and the house we purchased had been the same for all that time as far as we knew, so when we bought it we had no idea we were buying an illegal space. We do have a nice storage space now; I just wish it could be better lighted.

    Comment by Kate Quick,. — November 15, 2012 @ 5:46 pm

  17. Kevis, the amnesty was something that realtors must have lobbied for related to disclosure at time of sale. If you knowingly did a kitchen without a permit and were selling you could turn yourself in and only had to pay for regular permits, but if you did stuff that wasn’t code you could have a problem. Illegal units need not apply. I think it is a great idea. If it’s not still in effect it should be.

    I’ve worked on two “enforcement” jobs in Alameda which were projects which were busted for no permit before I was involved. One should have qualified for amnesty because the owners were bamboozled by a contractor who lied about what was and was not permitted. The clients who inadvertently turned themselves in by inquiring about permit status weren’t offered the amnesty option, but it was something I told them they should have attempted to ask for. The other job required us to tear out walls to reveal plumbing in various areas. The fines however are now four times the permit fee on top of original permit fee which means total coast is quintuple. What would be a $1500 kitchen permit will cost $7500.

    I worked in Berkeley recently and didn’t handle the permit approval, but I didn’t get the idea it was any worse than anywhere else. The plan checker who was assigned plan check was reputed to be extra slow and he was. They had a revision which was required to go back to the original plan checker, so it was slow twice. The inspector was willing to approve a number of field changes without plan revisions if the work was code and didn’t effect zoning. In Alameda inspectors are required to only approve what is on the plan (as drawn). A minor alteration (eliminating a header) cost me $65 for clerical process and could have cost more if staff time like plan check had been triggered. The revision fees are the case with all building departments, but in Alameda if you run into unforeseen conditions which require even a small alteration of something like a footing for example, the whole job can come to a screeching halt until it is redrawn and filed at City Hall. For me, Oakland has been the easiest place to do business as far as processing plans and getting assistance at the counter, but inspections in are hit and miss with regard to any leniency. Over the years Alameda has been known as a place which has some of it’s own code requirements for things like electrical and generally is not a favorite place to do business. That’s just a fact. Now that I am used to the way things work here I can cope, rules is rules. But the lack of inspections (or any City Hall business) on Fridays is an ongoing issues in terms of possible delay, because time is money. Oh! most importantly, Berkeley has a great web site for monitoring permits status and booking inspections which Alameda could benefit from. The entire Alameda City web site still sucks.

    The anecdotes in 10 and 13 about removing electrical for purposes of classifying a space are the type of things in construction which drive me nuts.

    12. If folks don’t know this, historic building code refers to pre 1943 and it means if you want to build stair railing at 32 inches height and can show historic precedent on that structure you don’t have to build to 42″ code. It can be very helpful. Basically, many non-conforming conditions can be grandfathered in if you go to planning and get them approved. They don’t require HAB approval, per say.

    Considering how stressful and complicated the process can be or at least seem to be for a home owner who has not had work done on their home, I think having the extra hoops of HAB to jump through can be icing on the bureaucratic cake. Referring back to John P #3, as it is HAB approval does not automatically mean a project needs to go before the planning board so limiting HAB purview to recommendation only could be problematic, including justifying fees for a process which is non-binding.

    BTW- 500 Central is looking much better, including the removal of weird metal hoods over windows and some other clap trap.

    Comment by M.I. — November 15, 2012 @ 9:56 pm

  18. I don’t know if the amnesty program still exists, we were looking at buying a fixer upper about a year ago and I checked the permit history and there were noted violations on the house records. When I asked about these, the code enforcement officer I spoke to said that if we were to buy the house we would have to fix the illegal stuff AND pay the fine (x times the permit fee). That was enough to scare us away.

    Comment by Lauren Do — November 16, 2012 @ 9:45 am

  19. @Lauren
    Fear would be a good title for this blog on buying older house.
    Everyone please this is intended to point that need correction not finger pointing at any specifi organization or agency .
    I was very fortunate to buy this house when the interest rate was 14% and no houses available ! {In retrospect Ishould let it burn when the outdated electrical was shorting out}.
    we were able to walk into City hall , get the permit required get it done , that was it , that was the good old days of the Bureau of electricity .Staff was friendly inspector helpfull.

    Few decades later , assuming they do not loose the plans , they treat you like a criminal,building Inspector are on an ego trip with an atitude closer to an IRS auditor , an Homeland security when the metal detector sound the alarm because you have a bras with a thin metal wire , an imigration officer looking for illegal or a DEA agent looking for 1/2 ounce of pot , some might think I am jocking , it is sadly the truth .
    On top of , you put the Alameda Historical Society and you better jump off the Golden Gate Bridge , Why ?
    Every single building inspector interpret the code the way they want , some residents actually had to redo the same project up to 3 times , sad part about it they are not even liable for the work they force you to do , why not?
    I do praise the HAB for their good intention , it is back firing, resident rather take the chance and do without any permit at all , We are all loosing ! you can’t blame them .
    The City sending very confusing messages , being inflexible in some way yet approve transforming single family house into 4 plex with no parking without feedback from affected neighbors.{this was by the way a house that fell also well within the norm of HAS . 2 bedroom 2 bath 1925 era, now a monstrocity .
    Yet within the same block assessing penalty to a home owner for illegal construction done 60 years ago , the cost university tuition for their children .
    Why the double Standard . It is time for Alameda Resident to form an association to fight that stupidity .

    Comment by mijoka — November 16, 2012 @ 3:36 pm

  20. 19 while there may be truth in some of your comments I think the way you’ve worded it is careless, but about par for a blog comment ( anonymous) .

    According to an electrician I use, dealing with the Bureau could be one of the worst experiences because they truly had their own rules. On top of having to book electrical inspections out of an entirely different department, back then each trade had it’s own inspector which was even more inefficient. That was the case in most municipalities, but most have now trained inspectors to inspect all trades. These people have to be well trained and I respect their knowledge, even if at time there seem to be inconsistencies from one individual to another. That is as much a product of the complex and constantly changing codes as the personnel. As professionals it on contractors to know the code too which is a huge challenge. It is daunting for a home owner top go it alone for sure, but the internet makes it easier than it once was.

    Comment by M.I. — November 17, 2012 @ 10:53 am

  21. 18. while it seems pretty funky for a buyer to get stuck holding the bag that is the point of disclosure laws. If property fell into amnesty by change of hands you can see the great incentive to keep violations below the radar until a sale has taken place. What you were told wouldn’t necessarily preclude amnesty for a seller and I hope the program is still available for that reason. I haven’t talked to anybody who has gone through it but since amnesty does not include grandfathering recent work which does not meet code it is probably no picnic.

    I’ve seen permit records which show what work was done with a permit, but never a record which included violations. Could you clarify?

    Comment by M.I. — November 17, 2012 @ 11:05 am

  22. The City of Alameda Web site is so hard to navigate, but I found by searching on “permits” that I came up with this page. On it are several articles written by Greg McFann. the city Building Official. The March article deals with the amnesty program, and the September one deals with the California Historic Building Code. The other articles are good too.

    Comment by Kevis Brownson — November 17, 2012 @ 11:23 am

  23. M.I.,, I worked for about 30 years mostly in Alameda as a General Contractor. your post #20 about the old Bureau of Electric. is correct, they had some rules that no other city had when it came to grounding electrical boxes. My dad was an electrician and some of my friends were electricians. They couldn’t believe some of the things that were required then.
    As for the amnesty program I did have a customer who went through the experience just before he sold his house. He wanted to be able to sell it without any trouble, but he said once you got into the program is was like stepping into a storm, not a very good experience. He didn’t really have any major things wrong that had to be corrected but is was slow and expensive and the city seemed to want to make the entire home come up to the current standards which are not required to sell your home. I wish someone could write a few articles from the point of view of people who have actually gone through the process.

    Comment by John P.(L) — November 17, 2012 @ 12:30 pm

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