Long-vacant historic home due for makeover

Long-vacant historic home due for makeover

Michele Ellson

1617 Central Avenue is getting a makeover. Photos by Peter Lyons; click for slideshow.

An historic home that languished for years as its owner and the city battled in court is set to get a makeover.

Mila Zelkha’s Mint Condition Homes, an Oakland-based design and development firm that acquires and rehabilitates troubled homes, has purchased the mansion-turned-apartment house at 1617 Central Avenue, and efforts to tidy up the property began this past weekend. Zelkha said she has developed preliminary plans to rehabilitate the site.

The city’s top building official said he’s pleased the property has changed hands and will finally be repaired. Its fate has been a major topic of conversation over the past several years, generating a level of interest that Zelkha experienced firsthand this weekend.

“People were just pulling over all day long on Saturday,” Zelkha said.

The property began its life in 1890 as home to mine owner Harry Patterson Stow, and was bought by its most recent owner, John Doherty, in 1973, records show. But a series of legal battles with the city over the number of units there and unpermitted work Doherty performed over the years left the property empty, and in limbo.

Doherty and his elderly and disabled tenants were evicted in 2008, after city officials determined the building had electrical deficiencies and improper gas connections which, along with a rotted main stairway, were hazardous, federal court documents show.

Doherty sued, saying the eviction over those issues – along with the city’s claims that the building had illegal units, which the courts struck down – constituted an illegal taking of his property. A federal court determined last June that Doherty needed to take other administrative steps before the court would consider his case.

Court records show that Doherty, who couldn’t be reached for comment for this story, had filed for bankruptcy, and he was reportedly living in an East Oakland warehouse while the cases wound through the courts. Meanwhile, city officials feared for the fate of the home. A carriage house had burned down eight or nine years ago, McFann said, and police arrested someone who they said stole guns from it in 2010.

“Our fear for years was that (the house) would catch fire and burn down, and we would never be able to replace it,” McFann said.

Zelkha said Doherty and his niece reached out to her this past summer, after reading an article about her work on an Oakland news website. The designer’s firm had been buying and renovating distressed properties in Oakland that other investors were avoiding.

“They weren’t going to be able to renovate it. And it was important to them that whoever bought it would do something thoughtful, (and was) someone who cared about affordable housing in Alameda,” said Zelkha, who said she was “honored” Doherty sold her the property.

Besides dealing with illegal units and other building code issues in the homes her company purchased, Zelkha said she works to “green” the homes and to restore their original character, evoking period details rather than imposing contemporary ones, as many other investors have done. The Oakland Heritage Alliance has honored her for each of the past three years for her preservation efforts, and her firm – which has been renovating about 10 homes a year – has also been honored for its green building practices.

In addition to her work in Oakland, Zelkha is an affordable housing advocate. She recently joined the board of the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, a nonprofit that maintains and develops affordable housing in that city.

McFann said city officials’ history with Doherty made them skeptical at first about her plans to purchase and fix up the property. Zelkha said she reached out to City Manager John Russo, who was familiar with her work from his long tenure in Oakland, for help, and she called his efforts to ensure the deal went through a “transformational point” in the process.

The home is one of a trio of blighted properties in Alameda that are getting cleaned up after years of inaction. Derelict warehouses that dotted a Clement Avenue property were torn down in December, while another residential property at 500 Central Avenue is in the midst of being renovated. All three projects have gotten underway over the past six months, McFann said.

McFann, who called Zelkha “brave” for taking the property on, listed issues that include a “significant” amount of dry rot, mold, leaks, illegal electrical work and half-built rooms with wood fireplaces to provide heat. The exterior of the home can’t be changed because it’s on the city’s register of historic places; Zelkha said she intends to repair it.

“It’s still a significant code enforcement case, but there’s some hope for the first time in a long time,” he said.

McFann said it’ll take someone who “knows old buildings” to undo all the code violations and years of neglect.

“From what I can tell, she seems to have a pretty good handle on this type of project. You’d have to because this is a pretty huge job,” he said.

With fewer foreclosures on the market, Zelkha said she’s transitioning away from foreclosures and toward performing renovation work for private clients. Another company she owns, Wrecking Belle Inc. construction, is the primary general contractor on all of her design firm’s homes.

“This seemed like a good transition piece to renovate a house that is distressed, but a very different kind of distressed,” she said.

Zelkha said the site will need a month’s worth of cleanup – a chain-link fence went up this week, and trees were being cleared when a reporter passed the property on Tuesday – before and work can proceed.

“It’ll be quiet for a little while, but we’re excited to work on it,” she said.

More photos and updates on the home's progress are available on Wrecking Belle Inc.'s Facebook page.


Submitted by Jim Pruitt and ... on Thu, Jan 17, 2013

Great story.
I lived two doors west of that house as a boy from 1957-64. It was a beautiful house then and an elderly lady, Mrs. Brewer, owned it. My sisters took ballet lessons in a front room and played in the back yard.
I wish Ms. Zelkha the best.