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|Small Santa Monica Apartment Building 15 Years in the Works||
By Jason Islas
April 23, 2012 -- For more than a decade, a dark, foreboding, fenced-in structure has sat unfinished on a leafy corner near the eastern edge of Santa Monica.
Started in 1997, the Gothic eyesore is of the longest-running construction projects in a city known for its involved citizenry and slow-moving planning bureaucracy, where filing for a permit, going before boards and commissions and passing final inspection can take years.
But the delays that have plagued this four-unit senior housing project on the southeast corner of Broadway and Stanford Street aren't the result of bureaucratic delays or the kind of community opposition usually reserved for much larger developments.
This particular project, said Principal Planner Paul Foley, "has been stalled for many years" and gone “way beyond what we really wanted.”
Owner Naren Desai, the 52 year-old immigrant from Bombay who bought the property four years before the 1994 Northridge earthquake, agrees wholeheartedly that 15 years is excessive, even by Santa Monica standards.
“This is a bigger nightmare than the earthquake itself,” said Desai, who promptly moved into one of the four bungalows on the site with his wife and three children when he bought the property in 1990.
Desai applied for a building permit in 1997 after the City allowed him leeway under a temporary ordinance to build an apartment complex in the same footprint as the four single-family houses that were damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
So Desai got started on building his two-story, four-unit apartment building under “a special ordinance to allow properties to rebuild a little bigger and a little higher.”
“There was too much bureaucracy and paperwork,” he said. It didn't help that Desai had applied for FEMA money and was consequently limited to a pool of contractors that met Federal standards.
By 1998, Desai had found a contractor and began construction. But soon, he found himself at odds with the contractor.
“It was shoddy workmanship,” Desai said, standing in front of the building on a recent sunny spring morning and pointing to the misaligned windows on the north façade of the building.
What started as a dispute between Desai and the contractor led to a protracted legal battle that lasted until late 2007.
By then, the City ordinance that allowed earthquake-battered buildings to be rebuilt “a little bigger and a little higher” had expired, as had Desai's permits.
Everything ground to a complete halt. Since then, the building has sat unfinished, an aging skeletal frame clad in plywood, its black tar paper clinging raggedly to the metal mesh that wraps around the outside, the ground-floor portals boarded up and marked with graffiti.
A few cracked windows, which otherwise look as though they have been recently installed, stare out on the street at passers-by and neighbors, who Desai said are as anxious as he is for the project to finally be finished.
That may happen soon, Desai said eagerly, adding that he and his wife have been living in a motel in West Los Angeles for years while they try to move the project forward.
But while the battle with the contractor has been a major cause of delays, the biggest problem has been parking, according to Desai. A four-unit apartment requires eight parking places for tenants and at least one for guests, he said.
“There isn't any room,” he said. To meet the standards, Desai said he would have had to demolish the building and start from scratch, which he simply couldn't afford.
In late 2010, a California law made some exceptions for senior housing and Desai saw a way around the parking problem.
As a result, the four-unit apartment building became a senior housing project, and things have begun moving forward for the troubled development again.
“We're able to start this year,” said project designer Richard Su. Su estimates that once Desai gets the green light to continue construction, the project will be finished within a year.
Once everything is in order, Su said, construction should take only up to four months.
Assuming everything goes as planned, that is.
When the building is finished, Desai and his wife plan to move back into one of the units and pick up where they left off after their lives were disrupted by an earthquake almost 20 years ago.
“This is our home,” said Desai, who is now a senior himself. “This is my retirement.
“If I had known it was going to be this much trouble,” he added, “ I would've taken the crooked windows.”
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