Blogging Bayport Alameda

April 21, 2014

Bad HABit

Filed under: Alameda, Development — Tags: — Lauren Do @ 6:01 am

Look, I know no one watches the Historic Advisory Board meetings.  I mean maybe there might be one or two people out there, but unless you are actively interested in the meeting, it tends to be a pass on most people’s must see TV list.

I don’t know why I tend to periodically watch the HAB.  I guess I’m a masochist, but this last meeting from the 3rd of April is a doozy.  Let me give you the basics.  Homeowner somewhere on the East End started construction without permits on some historic-y house.   Got hand slapped big time, paid huge fine now has to go through the whole HAB process because he wants to raise the foundation and do some other things.  So he’s not really starting on the best footing because the neighbors are highly suspicious.  Now homeowner has hired a new general contractor to help him out and seems to be largely on the right track, but the neighbors are still suspicious and understandably so.  But, now there is oversight via the Planning and Building Department which is notoriously strict.

I’m not going to even get into the very discomforting neighbor statements which amounted to an “us vs them” sort of attitude, but what I will write about is that this Board is teetering on being completely out of control.  There are rules about why you can and cannot approve a project.   One of the Board members came flat out and said that while she recognized that “trust” is not an appropriate reason to vote against a project, she’s going to do it anyway:

I still, I’m going to vote against this.  I still don’t feel the trust issue has been addressed.  I know that’s not our jobs, but I think that’s important.

I mean, the Chair of the HAB and City Staff did a valiant job of trying to sway this one Board Member’s mind, but she was unmoved.  City Staff explained that it’s not the HAB’s role to perform design review or any of the other details, which is what this one Board Member wanted and so, they opted to continue the item as opposed to giving it a straight denial.   The straight denial would have allowed the homeowner to appeal to the City Council, but the continuance has left him in limbo for a whole month until the next HAB meeting.

While the HAB deliberately delayed this for another month for inexplicable reasons; only three members were present so it would have taken all of the members present to pass a motion to approve.   (As an aside: this is the reason why Boards and Commissions vacancies need to be filled immediately, when you have a smaller Board like this one with only 4 of the 5 seats filled and you have someone absent, business gets delayed and it becomes a very real cost for very real people)

While the other two members attempted to pass through the motion, the lone hold out meant that the only resolution was either a continuance or a straight denial which would punt this to the City Council.   In an ironic twist, there was a public speaker affiliated with the Alameda Architectural Preservation Society who said that the front of the house would be rehabilitated to its historic state, which is the purview of the HAB.  (As an aside the AAPS person is a Housing Restorer and is working pro bono for the homeowner)  Yet, the HAB member who stalled the approval process  found fault and wanted the homeowner to do more outreach to the neighbors who do not appear willing to support anything at this point.



  1. Lauren, any idea what construction was started sans permit? Sorry, but it would be colossal stupidity to do foundation work without a permit. contractor on the board passed away and that slot has remained vacant. Ironically, a recent ballot measure of reforms for boards included changing HAB approval vote from majority of minimum quorum (2 of 3 present) to a majority of full board. Ridiculous opposition to a porch on Bay Street which came before the board three times was ultimately thwarted by a fluke 2 to 1 vote.
    Fiddler on the Roof song is “Tradition” isn’t it? We could do a parody musical of Alameda, Fiddling Over a Roof with song “Suspicion”.

    Comment by MI — April 21, 2014 @ 8:30 am

  2. Your example is not unusual. The Historic Board is the cause of many problems for the citizens of Alameda. The Planning Department will approve a design and the Planning Board or Historic Board will shoot it down. They did this with a home owner on Clinton Avenue who wanted to build a wonderful home next to his current home in a lot where a house had burned down. The designs were well done and represented the neighborhood well. He spent a lot of money on the designs, because after living in Alameda for over 30 years and buying and fixing numerous homes in Alameda, he knew that being prepared was important. Staff review his plans and approved them after a few adjustments. It cost the home owner $30,000 for the plan and changes. It went to the Planning Board and Historic Board and they picked it apart, based on one neighbors comments. All other neighbors were pleased with the design. The neighbor who had problems BTW no longer lives in Alameda. So, the plans were denied and the property owner had no choice but to let the property sit there with nothing on it. It has been amazing how problematic the Historic Board has been and how they damage the revenue generation that would help this town and the people who pay taxes to support it.

    Comment by William — April 21, 2014 @ 8:31 am

  3. I think it was the foundation raise that was started without permits, that, of course, raised all kinds of red flags.

    Comment by Lauren Do — April 21, 2014 @ 9:16 am

  4. @2: And the Clinton lot is Still Vacant. How many years has it been now? The last strong & detailed objection I saw was raised by the homeowner living next to the lot. The objections didn’t seem that unreasonable at the time. You mean that homeowner sold & moved away?

    Comment by vigi — April 21, 2014 @ 9:41 am

    • The homeowner who objected to the designs moved away. This is second hand information, so I may be incorrect, but I heard that
      she had moved away a few months ago.

      Comment by William — April 21, 2014 @ 9:47 am

  5. The foundation work had permits. The drawings said that the work included excavating 18 inches of dirt, the contractor, with approval of owner/permit puller, decided to jack up the house by 18″ instead to save money. Homeowner paid $10K penalty. (golden mean still met according to staff).

    Comment by John Knox White — April 21, 2014 @ 9:43 am

  6. #2, it was the planning board that held up the Clinton house, not the HAB. The design had significant, non-aesthetic issues. The owners (who bought it after it burned down, didn’t attend the meeting, the issue was continued (once) so that the issues could be dealt with and the owners never returned with revised plans.

    Comment by John Knox White — April 21, 2014 @ 9:52 am

    • Ah. Thanks John. I hear items from numerous people and it is never what it seems. Thanks for the feedback.

      Comment by William — April 21, 2014 @ 10:01 am

  7. Really hate to say it, but this is exactly why Alameda has become a city predominated by renters.

    There are some Victorian homes on the main island that have sunk into disrepair and the HAB doesn’t lift a finger to abate the peeling lead paint or shifting brick foundations. Yet, tax-paying property owners with some financial investment in the city, and incentive to remodel, rehabilitate, or repair older homes are scrutinized for petty issues until they pick up and leave.

    Comment by Kevin — April 21, 2014 @ 10:02 am

  8. I think one of the big things some people overlook is pretty simple, and in most cases, makes things go much more smoothly with the neighbors, is for the owner who wants to make changes to simply go around and introduce him or herself, explain the plan and the changes, and ask them if there is anything there they would object to. Most of the time people are so surprised and pleased to be consulted, they just say everything looks fine to them but thanks for asking. Once they’ve done that, it’s pretty hard to go back on your word and say you don’t like something. You had your chance to speak up.

    On our street, a house was recently flipped at a huge profit. Permits were done and notices put up but, somehow, everyone on the street missed hearing about it until the trucks moved on to our very narrow street and started making life difficult. We were dealing with a nameless, faceless, entity, that grew more wicked in our minds as time went on. Now it’s true, any discomfort the dagger eyes caused the workmen or the investors was short-lived as the house was sold to a really nice couple who are expecting a baby, who DID take the time to introduce themselves around the street and break that barrier of suspicion and resentment. This couple paid three times what anyone else on the street has paid for their house. In a situation like this, it’s possible that people would make all sorts of assumptions about them that would build on the resentment put in motion by the house flipper. Luckily, the home buyer had the good manners and good sense to get off on the right foot with the neighbors, so everybody’s okay with it now.

    Not all buyers will understand how important this is in a place like Alameda. They may be coming from San Francisco, or another area where people keep things more annoymous. If an investment property buyer antagonizes the neighbors from the get go, and the new owners don’t realize they should extend a hand to the neighbors, they are likely to have strained relations with their neighbors and never know why.

    Comment by Denise Shelton — April 21, 2014 @ 11:17 am

    • Denise. Excellent advice. I’m pleased to hear that your neighbor turned out to be insightful and friendly. We had a family move in a few years back and they delivered flowers with a card to each home here. It was a “Glad to be here” card, We were all amazed. Though we live on a street where everyone knows each other and the families, it was nice to have a new family respect our area. They have moved away unfortunately, but they were replaced by another nice couple. There may be more nice people out there than any of us realize!! 🙂

      Comment by William — April 21, 2014 @ 11:23 am

  9. Denise,

    Good point! On the flip side, there are some long term Alameda families that fear gentrification and will see any home repairs to their neighbor’s property as an increase in their property taxes and one further step to pushing them out of THEIR city. I have found this attitude pretty distasteful and prevalent in some neighbors that have lived in the same house for several generations without any home maintenance. No amount of flowers, small talk, or butt kissing will sway the native’s fear of the occupying force of home buyers coming from San Francisco and Oakland in search of an ideal community.

    Comment by Kevin — April 21, 2014 @ 11:36 am

  10. 9. Kevin , hate to say it but you don’t know what HAB purview is. It’s very narrow and is only triggered when an applicant pulls a permit. They have no authority or jurisdiction when it comes to abatement, blight or code enforcement. Alameda used to be slight majority renters but home ownership has been rising. Landlords pay taxes too, plus business licenses, and are held to all the same scrutiny as owner/residents, but may have different incentives, like profit. There has been example after example of people buying Victorians which have been hacked up by landlords and spending thousands to convert and restore them. I don’t see any evidence to substantiate your point, in fact the opposite.

    12. increased property taxes? have you or those folks heard of Prop 13? Their property value is increased but not their taxes.

    #5. that is unreal. Contractor who jacked the house should pay the $10 penalty and client or city or both should file a complaint to the state licensing board. I had a supposedly high end architect in Berkeley advise me to make all sorts of changes to approved plans for a new addition without getting a revision, like raise the roof line 18″. WTF? He hadn’t listened to what the owner wanted and the plan revisions DID need approval and cost everybody involved time and money.

    Our neighbor in Alameda had a basement dug out with foundation permit and the contractor jacked the house a foot without approval. Unbelievably, the contractor blew the height increase by the building department, but the problem was that after the contractor got permitted work signed off, he then did all sorts of work without permits like adding windows with insufficient set back which further violated zoning. He left after rough in. Work done to code without permit is not good, but zoning violations are REALLY bad news. Raising the house can be a zoning violation. Our neighbors had no idea permits did not extend beyond foundation work and went to City and put their heads in a noose. They paid fines but should have appealed under amnesty because they were unwitting. Also should have sued contractor who in effect ran himself out of town by being such a sleaze bag.

    Comment by MI — April 21, 2014 @ 12:19 pm

  11. I am surprised anyone wants to improve their property in Alameda. A friend of mine remodeled his bathroom and decided he wanted a tub with jets but to get approval it would have took 6 more months so he just put in a regular tub. We live where their is a HOA and we want to paint our house darker…it is off white and every year we have to get it powered cleaned to remove the dirt. Raising a house 18″ who really cares. Foundation work will actually make the house last longer. I went to a meeting once where the person wanted to build a second story on his house and it was zoned for 2 stories…but the neighbor kept fighting him saying it would take away his sun…he adjusted his plans and they kept being denied. The house was one of the 70′ houses along South shore and it actually looked better with 2 stories. If all those houses had a little more design…it would bring up the property values of all the houses…right now most of them look like boxes.

    Comment by Joseph — April 21, 2014 @ 1:00 pm

    • We have a neighbor who has been turning her “R1” home in to an apartment for the past 6 years. We have called the Planning Department and have never been able to get anyone to one out. They tell us that they are under staffed. This has been their response for 6 years. There are now 4-5 people living in her home as tenants and their cars take up parking spots for people who respect the R1 Zoning. The City refuses to do anything about the development and it simply continues. The garage is now fully built out as living space as well.

      Comment by William — April 21, 2014 @ 1:32 pm

  12. What is funny is people coming from SF and Oakland to buy our homes….I lived in SF and a year in Oakland before moving here….but I am originally grew mostly up in Oregon, and my partner grew up in El Salvador. Home isn’t where you came from or lived it is where you are now. I welcome my neighbors from SF or Oakland or where ever. I welcome the jobs which bring people to the Bay area.

    Comment by Joseph — April 21, 2014 @ 1:28 pm

  13. 14. sorry but the bathroom jets story is just not credible. somebody is confused or has confused you by misconstruing the situation, just like the burned house on Clinton in .2. Shadow studies are standard and legitimate. It’s a big deal to have your sunlight disappear, and a lot of people care. 18″ height change is substantial. Almost every city has a R-1 height limit of about 30 feet which has existed for ever and you can’t just flout that stuff. But I was in Santa Cruz recently near the beach and there are weird high end remodels everywhere with turrets and cupolas all over, like each guy is fighting to see over the previous pop up dormer. It’s all dot com money too. It’s a deviation from the norm, a “disruption” if you will, and it’s insane.

    Sorry, but 16. sounds fishy too. A neighbor of ours who has been busted for no permit is now all paranoid and vindictive so when I started demo with a permit and he ran the wrong address by the building department the enforcement inspector was out here the next day! There is money to be harvested from fines and the City has been hiring enforcement inspectors. Your story is an absolute anomaly for this town where a major preoccupation is minding other people’s business.

    Mundane things CAN be problematic. Real example: getting approval for simple change in window size or proportion, or simply changing double hung window to casement, can be tricky based on the stodgy design review language written to appease conservative preservationists. I’ve talked to ( bitched at) Planning about this recently. Over the counter bathroom permit gets hung up on design review for window change and when that is straightened out, whoops! the slightly wider opening requires a drawing showing size of structural header which has to go past the plan check engineer. You can’t just pencil in a note on the plan view drawing used for the over the counter permit. An inspector in the field should be able to make that call, but in Alameda that isn’t likely. The result is that what would be an over the counter single visit requires two or three trips. The design review language should be cleaned up or clarified, but with Alameda Point and Del Monte there are bigger fish to fry. Solution: be strict about preserving street facade, but on other elevations form should follow function. Bathrooms and kitchens are almost never in front and there should be a lot more latitude on doors and windows for those two rooms so people can have creative design options.

    Pulling permits feels very bureaucratic ( because it is), like a thousand paper cuts, but aside from fees you won’t bleed out if you persevere.

    Comment by MI — April 21, 2014 @ 3:57 pm

  14. Lauren , I leave in an historic-y- house one has to appreciate your sarcasm , I worked and paid for it in many ways ,did not get it at the lottery.
    Sorry if strip mall and made to last a decade housing is your cup of brew , it is not mine and it is interestingly exactly what bring critics like you on the “Island” Oakland still need a few brave people , Good Luck .
    It is further interesting when you constantly promote small business but push for large one which will kill them before they have a chance to make it , fortunately many took a big dive while doing So . Town Center , south shore will be a prime example .
    In regards of Permits , I had nothing but a very positive experience with various Building inspectors , Some said it take for ever to get a building Permit , go to San Francisco and try to get one .
    If these home owner do not like them sound of the boat they are free to get off the bridges are always lowered , no one will miss them .

    Comment by joel Rambaud — April 22, 2014 @ 9:28 am

  15. What are building permits ?
    They are the minimum international standard to erect structure safely , something forgotten in Asia where they had death by the thousand and total building failure because they did not feel foundation was a necessity……
    Are the Alameda building inspector strict , by my experience no , they have a code { which each interpret their own way II will give you that } .
    I have a very easy solution to all the peoples who complain about them , all the property which are being enlarged and some look as tacky as Orange County silicon jobs , all these property should have a sale freeze for 50 years , all these homeowner claim to be doing it to improve the property , then fine leave in it . This will definitely help them make up their mind .
    You will get from building Inspector what you dish at them , don’t play game they have been around , most of them are former contractors .
    They are very much stuck in City regulations , actually many times lenient , which I would put the blame square on the desk of the Planning Dept .
    I have a neighbor which pulled out a permit for retaining wall , He actually put all new foundation , dug the house to legal leaving unit , cut some 12 more window , new sewer line , moved the narrow to the back , in short an entire new leaving quarter , then are working in remodeling the back it eliminating most of the parking space , they will have a minimum of 6 vehicles but only 2 parking spaces ???? We the neighbors will be stuck with it . Alameda is not China . There is another catch which this owner may not be aware , it may have passed the City , it will not pass the tax assessor since they essentially doubled the leaving space , according to the building code taxation they will be assessed on double the actual taxes , that is going to hurt far more than any complaint with the City .
    Interestingly the property is owned by a Chinese Contractor , welcome to Hong Kalemeda.

    Comment by john — April 22, 2014 @ 10:58 am

  16. John, you are correct, Alameda is not China, its in America and we are all Americans.

    Comment by John P. — April 22, 2014 @ 11:04 am

  17. # 20 are We ?
    Our jobs belong to China ,
    Our National defense belong to China
    Most of our Port belong to China ,
    Our economy belong top China , This Start at your very tax refund money borrowed from China
    Our Bay Bridge was made possible by China
    Might as well get a Chinese Passport , that idea will not fly with some redneck wearing jeans made in China , Shirt made in China , Shoes made in China , but driving a truck made in Japan …..

    Comment by joel Rambaud — April 22, 2014 @ 12:13 pm

  18. William #16
    call the Alameda PD when the noise get there after hours , you will have a paper trail , then Challenge the City Manager John Russo He is looking at a career in politic this is the last thing He want on his resume …
    by the way do you have street cleaning ,if not get with a couples of neighbors and request one from public work .
    Another venue is the fire dept for dangerous housing a garage is not a leaving space .
    Last and not the least the tax assessor , will take longer but very efficient , they want revenue ….. this will also trigger an IRS audit .
    Best of luck

    Comment by joel Rambaud — April 22, 2014 @ 12:24 pm

  19. William I forgot , the City Attorney as well because an accident will also put the City liability at risk , they will push the building depot into action , they did it to a slum lord on Broadway and Santa Clara ……

    Comment by joel Rambaud — April 22, 2014 @ 12:28 pm

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