After prompting the creation of two city building ordinances and more than a decade of protests from neighbors, the 16-year-long construction project at 1693 Mariposa Ave. has certainly made its mark on Palo Alto's Southgate neighborhood. Nearby residents, however, will soon be able to let out a sigh of relief. With interior finishes now being wrapped up, the all-concrete, three-domed home is finally near completion.
The home boasts a 3-foot-thick concrete floor, 18-foot-tall domed ceilings and 6- to 10-inch-thick concrete octagonal walls. Drawing from the expertise of international structural engineers, inspection supervisors and his own son — the project's superintendent and designer — owner and contractor Randy Feriante called the home completely unique: "A project like this has never before been built anywhere."
This ambition ultimately became the cause for the holdup.
Additional city inspections were needed due to the project's unusual and complex design, which slowed down progress, according to Feriante. The home's concrete domed shape also made it difficult to meet California Fire Code. Feriante said he went through three different sprinkler contractors to find one who could formulate a satisfactory plan.
Jim McFall, an architect and Southgate resident for 38 years, said that the house's design is hard to categorize into any specific style or tradition.
"Architecturally, I have a difficult time describing it," he said. "There's three primary concrete domes, several raised flat roof sections and a very prominent fascia that wraps around the house. It's a combination of forms and shapes."
According to Feriante, the project's highly insulated construction also cost more than twice as much as that of a conventional wood structure. According to Zillow, the newly built 4,330-square-foot home, which includes four bedrooms and five baths, was valued at an estimated $4.34 million as of March 28.
The home's eccentric design came at another price: over a decade of neighborhood complaints.
For years, a green fabric-covered chain-link fence surrounded the property, concerning neighbors and evoking rumors of criminal activity.
Former Palo Alto Mayor Gail Woolley, a Southgate resident for 53 years, said she often heard murmurs about people allegedly trespassing and loitering at the perpetual construction site, which borders Peers Park. The property's visual blight caused even more concern among residents.
"Nobody liked it. Everybody felt it was an eyesore," Woolley said. "People thought it was an imposition, too. In terms of people who bought into the neighborhood, they didn't expect how long construction would take."
McFall echoed Woolley's sentiment, remembering various times over the past 16 years when construction would start and stop without much progress being made.
"During those years where nothing was happening. The property was fenced off, and it looked really bad," he said. "There was concern about it being somewhat attractive to kids who might want to hide out somewhere and be able to actually go inside the house."
In 2013, residents took action, organizing and appearing before the Palo Alto City Council. Their coordinated effort resulted in the creation of a new city law (Ordinance 5227) requiring a renewal application be made within 30 days of the expiration of a project's building permit and providing penalties for non-compliance.
Under the law, however, such permits could be extended indefinitely as long as the holder completes enough work to advance to the next level of inspection within six months. The city soon after issued a new permit for the Mariposa project; however, Woolley asserted that, for two years, Feriante kept the permit alive by completing just enough work to undergo an inspection every six months.
With their patience running thin, neighbors met with the city frequently during the ensuing years. In 2016, city Ordinance 5389 answered their demands for more stringent enforcement. The new code set a 48-month time limit for developments to reach a final inspection.
Yet, the chain-link fence still stood tall around the Southgate home's unfinished, exposed frame. In preparation for yet another meeting with exasperated Southgate residents in 2018, then-City Manager James Keene threatened to levy at least $77,000 in fines against Feriante unless he finished the job, according to local news accounts. Keene told city staff that he presented the property owner with a contract and a demand for work to proceed and referred the matter to code enforcement, according to minutes from an August 2018 council meeting.
Feriante said he doesn't recall any threat or fine.
"There were development department and permit fees when the project restarted. The fees (were) like it was a new project," he said.
"I think those city regulations have been helpful in getting the project started up again," McFall said. "I've been very pleased with the city. They've been proactive in monitoring the construction and being on-site with the intent of encouraging and maybe pressuring the owner a little bit to get the job done."
But for Woolley, Palo Alto's building codes have still fallen short.
"There have been other cities who have dealt with this (type of situation) better," she said. "I wish there was some way for the city to, perhaps through legal action, do something to force completion."
Feriante praised Palo Alto's planning department for working with him every step of the way to help move such a complex project through the process.
"Now that the house is done, the current inspection services manager is making arrangements to have his staff tour the building," he said. "This is something they can be very proud of, and they were there every step of the journey."
Seeing the end in sight, Southgate residents share in Feriante's excitement about the nearly finalized home.
"It's been a long time coming, so I think it's good that it looks to be very close to being completed," McFall said. "I'm very happy that they're finally finishing the house."