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City has little leeway with unfinished homes

Original post made on May 12, 2013

Eight years after construction began, a Barron Park residence remains unfinished, much to the chagrin of neighbors who find it unsightly. Now, residents, through a neighborhood email list, are saying they are baffled by why the city fails to take over or demolish abandoned buildings.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Sunday, May 12, 2013, 9:20 AM

Comments (40)

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 12, 2013 at 1:36 pm

Can we complain about the unfinished library at Mitchell park too?

Posted by Concerned, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 12, 2013 at 2:21 pm

This place is a safety hazard. Kids from the neighborhood and Juana Briones sneak in. I'm surprised no one has been hurt least to my knowledge.

Posted by Book me Danno, a resident of College Terrace
on May 12, 2013 at 2:39 pm

Concerned--- sounds like these children are trespassing. If you know who they are, you should give their names to the police.

Posted by understatement, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 12, 2013 at 2:40 pm

This article understates the problem from what I have seen by a large
margin. Projects go on and on for years disrupting the neighborhood. It is an aesthetic issue, which the City passes off of course, because if the City cared about aesthetics they would be enforcing the guidelines under the Single-Family Individual Review process for starters. Construction projects can store equipment on site, reduce driver visibilities, interfere with sidewalk access, create dust, besides just being an eyesore. I would guess that in most cases the longevity has nothing to do with money issues but the reason for
the conditions should not matter from a public interest and health and safety standpoint. Essentially what is happening in these cases
for the most part, which is not a small number, is the City's bias
in favor of builders, at the expense of residents and quality of
life and neighborhood character, ambiance in Palo Alto. It's the
same problem in City Hall showing up in yet another form. This
mindset affects everything from the smallest projects to the grand

Posted by anonymous, a resident of Esther Clark Park
on May 12, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Even "routine" building can be a hassle or nightmare for neighbors. I am sure sympathetic with the situations depicted in this post.They are worse than what we have experienced, yet we feel we have been impacted by people who don't care about others.
We have had a lot of remodeling and construction near us. In one case not long ago, we had a builder take 9 months or so (working a lot - not an issue with work stoppage - but extended period of noise, vehicles, deliveries) to complete a fairly fancy home (builder's own investment property). I am happy to have a new, semi-glamorous home across the street, but the builder and his associates were oblivious to neighbors as far as our experience was - to give a particular example, they parked their vehicles constantly in front of our home, often blocking the view for when we wished to back out of our driveway (a major hazard on our street and tiresome when the situation is continuous), and sometimes they blocked part of our driveway as well. Not so much as a "hello" or heads up on particular work from any of these people (like when initial demo of the old home was done, a quick heads up would have been appreciated, for example). I don't know what a normal timeframe to build an approx. 2200 sq ft home would be, I think a little less than 9 months, though. It boils down to common courtesy, which is in short supply around here. I would feel a lot more goodwill towards this builder if he had ever bothered to say hi.

Posted by anonymous, a resident of Esther Clark Park
on May 12, 2013 at 3:05 pm

sorry, I should be listed as anonymous, Duveneck St. Francis.

Posted by construction, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 12, 2013 at 4:23 pm

It might help if PaloAlto were to give occupancy permits when the construction is done to a certain point where the building is habitable and completed enough on the exterior.

Construction loans are expensive. So there is a big incentive to get the project complete enough to convert to a home loan. In Palo Alto, you have to complete and close out the permits before you can refinance. Those last finishes can take forever. If there are problems or delay sand permits lapse, then owners have no incentive to try to at least get the project to the occupancy permit stage (acceptable to the neighbors and habitability) before stopping.

The city should consider granting occupancy permits the way most cities do.

Posted by Johnny, a resident of Midtown
on May 13, 2013 at 9:01 am

Anonymous - I know living near a construction site is a pain, but 9 months is pretty fast. We built a about a 2000sq foot home in about 10 months, and there were really no major delays or anything. When a person is contractor-shopping, it is good to check references to make sure they leave a clean job site at night, but during the day there are obviously going to be annoyances. Its nice when they are done though - it generally improves the value of the neighborhood.

Posted by anonymous, a resident of Esther Clark Park
on May 13, 2013 at 9:05 am

Well, we have had plenty of other projects that took less time.
"A construction site" is laughable - people on our street have suffered through many, though the one I mention is notable for their lack of consideration of others.
Nobody here went contractor shopping - this is a developer builder from out of area who doesn't care about our street.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 13, 2013 at 9:34 am

Anyone who is annoyed with a neighbor's contractor being unreasonably disruptive to the neighborhood could contact the Better Business Bureau if speaking to the owner and the contractor doesn't work and let them know that you are doing so. If they improve because of knowing that the BBB has been informed, also let them know that they have improved. Also when shopping around for a contractor, check with the Better Business Bureau to see if they have received negative comments from neighbors as well as previous home owners for history of complaints.

Posted by local gurl, a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 13, 2013 at 9:45 am

Neighbors of these stalled projects can file a private nuisance lawsuit. Perhaps that will get things moving/resolved.

Posted by Emerson Street, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 13, 2013 at 10:50 am

We and our neighbors are very tired of the long-term construction site and outdoor toilet at 2051 Emerson Street between Santa Rita and Rinconada. Construction has been stalled out for FOUR YEARS. I have not seen activity there for the past 2 yrs. One of the construction foremen in 2011 told me "the owner desires good relations with the neighbors." Yet the unfinished construction is becoming a nuisance and eyesore.

Posted by Complicit?, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 13, 2013 at 11:39 am

Sometimes a surfeit of money is the problem, not the lack thereof. The Gunns own several properties in our neighborhood and have been constructing continuously for, literally, over a decade! It's been really dangerous for children walking or riding their bikes to Walter Hays since the parked trucks reduce visibility. Similarly, we have had to back out of our driveways & cross the streets with little visibility, but the Gunns did not let their contractors park in front of their own house!!! And did not say a word to the neighbors, ever. On Feb 11 the Gunns hired a huge crane to lift a 20 foot Copper Beech tree in an 84" box into their flag lot (to replace another fully grown tree which THEY had planted.) The children had to walk/ride past this on Coleridge en route to school and the crane operator said it was very dangerous: he was afraid the wooden tree container would break. Is this a form of bullying? Am I complicit by not confronting them? If a child got injured I would not forgive myself for remaining silent.

Posted by fedUp, a resident of Community Center
on May 13, 2013 at 11:43 am

1436 Harker Ave.
No construction activity for over 2 yrs. 2 month of a real estate sign saying "coming soon", which sounds like a sham.
I don't understand why they keep a public toilet in the front yard, if no construction activity is planned

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on May 13, 2013 at 12:31 pm

My experience is that a new home takes a year, 9 months would be a miracle.

As much as we can be upset with the contractors and their ignorance the neighbors, IMHO it is the property owner who is responsible for the problems. The owners should set the guidelines for the construction site and the consideration towards the neighbors.

The contractors will do whatever they want unless otherwise instructed.

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on May 13, 2013 at 1:31 pm

If you have car campers in your neighborhood, it is a lot worse than unfinished homes next to you, although I do agree that unfinished home are also an issue.

College Terrace has suffered severely by this plague of car campers. It has been improved via parking restrictions, and I appreciate it. However, despite the parking restrictions there is not enough enforcement. For example, there is a ban on 1-5 AM parking on Oxford, but that guy is still there, with two junk vans.

Larry Klein seems to think that there is no problem, so I am calling him out [portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.] The Policy and Services committee will meet tomorrow night to discuss this issue. Will you still claim that is not an issue worth worrying about?

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 13, 2013 at 2:48 pm

Replace other development fees with a $100 / day construction fee. Charge $10 / day parking fee for each construction truck. Exempt projects below $50,000 or 20 work days. Delinquent fees result in liens and ultimately a tax sale.

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on May 13, 2013 at 3:38 pm

>Charge $10/day parking fee for each construction truck.

How about we charge $20 per day for car campers? And then $30/day to Palo Alto for failure to enforce?

Construction trucks act to construct new buildings and homes. Car campers provide no value to any neighborhoods, unless Larry Klein chooses to object.

Posted by Palo Alto Southgate resident, a resident of Evergreen Park
on May 13, 2013 at 3:38 pm

The owner described in this article with the two unfinished houses has been unresponsive to neighbors' concerns. The house that abuts Peers Park has been dormant for six years and consists of a treacherous unfinished "basement" with various vertical steel bars. This property attracts drug dealers and vagrants - neighbors have observed and reported crimes that occurred beside and in front of the abandoned site. It creates a dangerous situation for kids playing in the park.

Posted by anonymous, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 13, 2013 at 3:41 pm

Larry Page's house on Bryant [portion removed] has been under construction for 4+ years. Not having the project get finished insures job security for the construction workers. They move like snails. They don't want the job to end. They like parking their unsightly trucks and cars in front of all the pretty neighbors houses, shaded by trees, all day long. They take smoking breaks constantly, eat their lunches on the neighbors lawns, and are constantly standing around chatting. They obviously love being able to brag to people that they are building Larry Page's house. The taco truck man has made a career out of feeding the construction crew. The house doesn't look like a residence. Is it a commercial building, so Larry can work out of it? Sure looks like it.

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Southgate
on May 13, 2013 at 3:47 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Dan, a resident of Southgate
on May 13, 2013 at 5:41 pm

I'm glad to hear the owner of the house by Peer's Park hopes to have it done by the end of the year. I wonder why he didn't tell us that when we presented him with a petition asking him to do the same? There's been zero work done on that house is about 5 years, so I'm a bit skeptical.

Posted by Tracy , a resident of Southgate
on May 13, 2013 at 5:48 pm

The house on Peer's park will not be done by the end of the year. Even if they started today, they would not be done. They only have a foundation and rusted steel rods.

Not sure why he just doesn't sell the lot to a buyer who intends to occupy the house and can finish or start again.

The city should so something, it is a safety hazard for kids going to/from the park.

Posted by understatement , a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 13, 2013 at 5:50 pm

The stream of complaints in these posts confirms that the City
is minimizing what is actually a very big problem in terms of
safety and neighborhood character. This is the same typical City response in terms of not serving the residents, oblivious to what is
happening, and ensuring that even minimal standards be met as the City and its neighborhoods continue to degrade. But we did just replace the Bryant St signs in blue to indicate a "bike route".

Larry Page's house also involved major dewatering of the site. Palo
Alto still has no restrictions on dewatering for new construction and here we are in a developing possibly critical drought situation.

The idea of a per diem tax beyond a certain time period on long-running construction projects is an excellent idea.

Posted by disgusted, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 13, 2013 at 6:13 pm

I don't think the City cares about such things like "neighborhood character" - all they care about is ABAG numbers, density, and asking how high when the developers tell them to jump.

Posted by Midtown Mom, a resident of Midtown
on May 14, 2013 at 12:23 pm

The issue of the Baron park home I assume is related to finances-- I feel bad for the home owners. It is extremely stressful to run out of money. I don't think they need their neighbors to be critical--I am sure donations would be great. It is their property and I am sure they would like it completed even more than their neighbors. All construction projects take a long time. They are disruptive- but that is why the city has certain time guidelines as to when the contractors can work. There should never be noise before or after a certain time. If you have a life it shouldn't make a difference. To compare the progress of the Baron park home where they obviously are having financial problems and the Bryant st monster project where they have no concept of money-- they just can't be compared. Find some compassion people of Baron park....or donate some money.

Posted by oy, a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on May 14, 2013 at 4:12 pm

The City of Palo Alto Development Center (Building and Planning Dept.) currently has 3 managers for every 1 FTE staff. So every regular salaried staff employee has 3 managers to watch over his/her activities for the day. Surely there must be one of these managers who can address your concerns regarding construction activity (or non-activity)? Perhaps voicing your concerns when one of the staff is out sick or on vacation would be an optimum time to contact one of the three managers whose job it is to watch over their appointed staff employee. The Department has a Development Center Chief, Development Center Manager, Chief Building Official, Assistant Building Official, Building Inspector Supervisor, numerous management Project Manager, and the list continues on and on. Contacting a councilmember who only spends three or four hours a week at city hall probably should be your last choice in resolving your current issue.

Posted by consistency, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 14, 2013 at 6:05 pm

The Development Center could have ten more Managers and it would
make no difference because this is not a problem and "consists
of just a few properties" according to City officials. It is a
non-issue. Only recently did the parking overflow Downtown
become an "issue" to be studied so we understand the bar is very
high for something relating to the neighborhoods to become an issue.
The City is consistent in this regard.

Posted by Jean, a resident of Evergreen Park
on May 14, 2013 at 7:52 pm

I live very close to the unfinished home in Evergreen Park. The owner tore down a lovely older home that sat beautifully on the lot. Now, all of the neighbors gaze at what looks like a bomb shelter. Being "overwhelmed by work" is no excuse for this atrocity. How unfortunate.

Posted by The Skipper, a resident of Community Center
on May 14, 2013 at 10:08 pm

does the broken down Gilligans Island boat in the yard of a home on Bryant near El Verano count as an unfinished house boat?

Posted by We need to get together, a resident of Evergreen Park
on May 15, 2013 at 12:58 am

Until the people of Palo Alto get together and do something about overdevelopment and non-enforcement of codes, it will continue to be a developer/builder-run town.
This has been going on for years and years. The moneymakers call us names to silence us. Greed rules.

Posted by Mayor, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 15, 2013 at 10:32 am

the house at 2051 Emerson street has "under construction" with portable toilet since it was purchased by a buyer whose real name is "hidden" in 2011, with no work done in the past year--except for sawing off a large branch of the magnficent Coastal Oak-- I thought those trees were protected?

Posted by Sue, a resident of Barron Park
on May 15, 2013 at 1:27 pm

@midtown mom

Are you the owner of the 8-years-and-still-not-finished-mess in Barron Park? You think the neighbors should give them money to finish building?

I think the City should give them notice to finish within 6 months or revoke the permit & take the property. Then PA can finish & sell it. Or just call the bank with the loan on the place so they can repossess it.

Posted by oy, a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on May 15, 2013 at 1:34 pm

re: consistency

Fortunately, permits issued for construction expire after 180 days if no construction progress or inspections are completed. Whether or not the Building or Planning Dept. choose to enforce state and city adopted codes (IBC) is a matter for the city attorney. The code enforcement staff employed by these departments, as an enforcement tool, require that managers within these departments give direction to staff to pursue legal enforcement to negate construction without permits and/or construction sites that are abandoned. You are very perceptive when you state that "the development center could hire ten more managers and it would make no difference", as Palo Alto residents have been conditioned by the City Manager's office into accepting incompetence and inaction by city management staff as an alternative to providing public service. What a pity!

Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on May 15, 2013 at 1:52 pm

When we lived in another part of the country, a building permit was good for one year. If you didn't finish, you had to reapply and pay ALL the fees over again. That wouldn't be a deterrent for some in Palo Alto, but for many it would.

Posted by compassionate mommy, a resident of Midtown
on May 15, 2013 at 1:57 pm

midtown mom wants us to donate money to millionaires who may have miscalculated.
Way to go, mommy! Your compassion is screwy, but noted.
Are you also one who tells poor people who object to being thrown out of their homes, 'if you want to stay, buy the property.' I just love those folks, they have hearts made of gold bars.

Posted by really now, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 15, 2013 at 2:22 pm

"The issue of the Baron park home I assume is related to finances-- I feel bad for the home owners. It is extremely stressful to run out of money."

The issue is not money. This property could have been flipped several times for plenty of money. How about compassion for the family that lives across the street and has to see a bright blue porto potty and chain link fence with graffiti on it every time they go outside.

Posted by consistency, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 15, 2013 at 10:08 pm

We have situations where one or two workers show up for a half day
then a few days later again for a few hours, then maybe a week later
for a few hours. So the construction site is not abandoned but
the slow pace means the project may drag on literally for years.
Over this long period there are varying degrees of impact on the
neighborhood. There is apparently no City control.

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Community Center
on May 16, 2013 at 7:36 am

The construction, or should I say lack of construction, at 1436 Harker Ave is entering it's 7th year. It's clearly a case of the builders running out of money. The house is a blight in our otherwise delightful neighborhood.

It does seem that assessing increasing fines as the years drag on is fair policy. Neighbors shouldn't have to live with the constant presence of a port-a-pottie (often used by construction workers from other job sites), the falling down fences in front and back, and the weeds growing rampant all over the place.

Moreover, if a neighbor wanted to sell her house, her value would be impacted by the eyesore.

And Coldwell Banker, aren't you embarrassed to hang your "coming soon" for sale sign on a house and still have it there six months later? Who are you kidding but yourselves?

And Palo Alto city government, we neighbors pay our taxes, have written you, and called you, and you don't even give us the courtesy of a response. This may be the most outrageous issue.

It a sad situation all around for all parties.

Posted by paly parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on May 16, 2013 at 11:55 am

The permit for the house at 1436 Harker was issued in October, 2007. That is ridiculous. You can find out who owns the property, who pulled the permit and the contractor on the City website.
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