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Council okays demolition of Buena Vista home

Submitted by on 1, March 4, 2009 – 8:00 am6 Comments

3In an emotional hearing that pitted Park Street businesses against preservationists and nearby residents, the city council okayed the demolition of a home on Buena Vista Avenue whose owner plans to use it for parking for a planned retail development.

Doug deHaan was the lone council member to oppose the plan.

The owner, Bill Phua, must continue his efforts to get someone to move the home to another spot and cannot demolish the building until a building permit for his proposed development is issued. He said he hopes to pull building permits in six months.

Phua had asked the city’s Historical Advisory Board to take the home, an 1890 Queen Anne cottage, off the city’s historic study list and to allow him to demolish the home for parking for a retail development he wants to build on the site of the former Cavanaugh Motors – a project that is seen by some as a key to kick-starting efforts to redevelop the city’s former auto row, north of Lincoln Avenue. The board demurred, questioning whether removing the home for economic reasons was within their purview.

Residents of the adjacent Wedgewood neighborhood who were among the 19 speakers on the home’s fate questioned whether the parking was needed and also the cost assumptions Phua’s consultants made in researching restoration of the home as part of an earlier business plan. And they said the demolition could lead to the loss of more old homes in the future.

“The message is that it’s okay to bulldoze over our homes and our families” as the redevelopment moves forward, Wedgewood resident Melanie Wartenburg said.

Members of the Alameda Architectural Preservation Society, who have supported the redevelopment project, asked the council to require Phua to wait on demolishing the home until he gets a building permit for his retail project. They also asked that Phua continue his efforts to move the home.

Speakers also referenced some fledgling efforts to move the home to the former Island High site. Acting City Manager David Brandt said that city officials had talked to the folks over at the school district, which owns the property, and were told the home would have to integrate into a larger project.

But business owners said parking is a key ingredient of the city’s revitalization plans for the city’s now-defunct auto row. The lot where the home stands could hold 17 of the 50 spaces required for the proposed development, city staff said.

“This house stands in the way of this project moving forward,” Debbie George, president of the Park Street Business Association, said.

And Phua, who has offered the home for free on Craigslist, said he can’t wait much longer to proceed with his plan.

“I have no objection to giving the house away. But can we give it away in a reasonable amount of time?” Phua asked the council.

Council members said they want to preserve Alameda’s old and historic houses, but that they felt that moving forward on the North of Lincoln plan outweighed what they feared could be unsuccessful efforts to have the home restored.

“I have absolutely no doubt that this house can be restored. But you’ve got to have somebody to love the house to do that,” Councilmember Marie Gilmore said.

Council members also said they feel the city’s process, which requires review by the Historical Advisory Board before demolishing a home built before 1942, allows the city to examine demolitions on a case-by-case basis. (One speaker said that this would be the first such demolition in Alameda in the 21st century.)

“The system is set up so each property has its hearing,” Councilmember Frank Matarrese said. “The fact that we have a study process recognizes that each case is unique.”


  • AD says:

    I’m opposed to even moving the house because this is how the historic fabric of a place begins to unravel. You start picking at the edges, shrinking the area, and soon you are left with a couple of blocks of a “museum” quality houses instead of an authentic, living place where the old and the new coexist. Take the area of Berkeley west of Ashby, around 7th street, where they have done a great job of revitalizing an “old” industrial neighborhood simply by maintaining the old buildings and adding new ones of similar height and size and planting trees. Coffee shops have sprouted like mushrooms and small businesses thrive. It’s very lively; people appreciate the authenticity and connection to the past.

    The business interests in Alameda who drive development here are ruining the city with their “wipe out and replace” attitude from the 50s. Must we really wait for them to die out for things to change?

  • Erik Miller says:

    As I pointed out at the meeting, the Council's decision to allow the developer to demolish the home is the first such ruling of the 21st century in Alameda.

    That's something I hope everyone in the Wedge neighborhood and the rest of the city remembers in 2010 when 3 of those council people will be likely vying for the position of mayor.

    Lauren Do pointed out that the very next item on the agenda was whether to allow a Gold Coast homeowner to put a front porch on their house as part of a larger renovation. That was denied.

    Y'see, in the Gold Coast, where the money lives, it's VITAL to preserve the integrity of the neighborhood's architectural legacy. Over here in the Wedge, where we're still mostly renters and first-time owners, it's more important for people to have a place to park their cars while they shop for high-end culinary items.

    So far, Doug DeHaan has my vote for 2010.

  • Erik Miller says:

    Oops! What I got out of Lauren's post was that they were ultimately denied permission to build their porch.

  • Lauren Do says:

    Erik M.:

    Sorry I didn't make it more clear, it is all very confusing between the appellants vs. the applicants. Of the remaining City Council folks (B. Johnson, F. Matarrese, L. Tam), F. Matarrese made a motion to upload the appeal (deny the porch) and B. Johnson voted with him, L. Tam voted against. But in a twist of fate (or twist of procedure)the appeal needed three votes to pass so by default the lower decision (PB & HAB) stood which means that family gets porch.

  • Erik Miller says:

    Yeah, I finally figured out that the Council voted to deny their permission to build the porch, but the end result was that they were allowed to build the porch.

    At my current level of skepticism, I wonder if that result was as much of a surprise to the Council as it appeared. This way, everyone has an out: the homeowners get their porch and Council gets to say to the neighbors "but we voted to deny it!"

    If one believes it went down the way it was portrayed, it's kind of disturbing that our Council is not aware of their own rules of procedure (what if it were something more crucial than a porch?). If it was all worked out ahead of time, then one has to marvel at the cynicism.

    I say this because it was pretty clear to me that on "our" issue, 2413 Buena Vista, the Councilmembers had decided far in advance how they were going to vote, and nothing that the public could have said at the actual meeting would have changed those votes. So all that remained was to justify their vote to those in attendance. DeHaan demonstrated that he had done his homework, and the others made a show of being taken in by the reports and estimates from the developer's hired consultants. How many times did they repeat "10-15%?"

    We're learning more about how this stuff works. We in the neighborhood have just as much right to meet with the Councilmembers and city staff outside the meetings as the developer. One difference is that the developer can pay people to go down there and schmooze.

    The game is not completely rigged, but the deck is stacked in favor of commercial interests.

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