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[whitespace] The Hall family's descent into the abyss of home rebuilding

Willow Glen--Janice Hall never braves the basement. In the six years she and husband Brad have owned the tiny cottage at 1080 Willow Glen Way, Janice has not once set foot down the cement stairs into the dark abyss.

The basement isn't his favorite place either, Brad admits, but once in a while it's a painful necessity. So on a recent Monday night, cloaked in protective spider gear, i.e. Birkenstocks and a flashlight, Brad makes his descent.

"See this crack in the foundation," he says, pointing the light at a wide crack running the entire height of the cement under the house. The center floor joists have been cut in half to lodge a heating vent in the floor. Wood planks hold up the joists, making them level with the rest of the house. Water damage eats away at most of the visible floorboards.

The basement is a constant reminder to the Halls that underneath the sheet metal and carpet in the rest of the house, and the fresh paint disguising cracked and peeling walls, their 1920's-era home is rapidly deteriorating. The decay is also a reminder of the Halls' yearlong struggle with the city to tear the house down and build a new one in its place.

When Brad and Janice Hall bought their Willow Glen bungalow in April 1993, it was no more than a rotten, run-down shell--hardly their dream house. But that was part of their plan.

"We purchased the home under certain criteria," explains Brad, 32, a tall man who has to duck to walk through the front door. "The criteria was the worst house on the best street that we could afford. And we found it."

The Halls bought the house for $180,500, "as-is"--with the intention of replacing it when they had the money to do so. They chose it solely for its location--on the street of their dreams in the Glen. Tucked away on Willow Glen Way, a picturesque street lined with stucco houses and leafy trees, the two-bedroom, one-bathroom, Spanish-style cottage was an eyesore. The paint was old and peeling, and the front porch had broken away from the house. The trees and bushes were dead, and the lawn was a mess of dirt and overgrown weeds. Inside, the hardwood floor, linoleum and carpet were all rotted from water damage and termites. Structural floor joists had been cut to install a gas floor furnace, causing the house to cave inwards. The fireplace was unusable. The foundation was cracked and the stale air reeked of alcohol and wet dog.

"We showed my mother, and she burst into tears," Brad says. "We could not get her to stop crying."

Before buying the house, Brad and Janice checked to see that it wasn't on the city's Historic Resources Inventory--an inclusion that would prohibit them from tearing it down in the future. It didn't make the list, and they were set.

Sweat Equity

The Halls spend the next two years cleaning and repairing the house, repainting both inside and out, leveling off the floors and laying new carpet, and planting trees, flowers and a front lawn. Years later, the newly painted pink stucco cottage is transformed. But underneath the fresh linoleum, the floorboards are still rotted and unstable. The front porch pillars are still cracked and pulling away from the overhang. The fireplace is still unusable. The Halls were still waiting for the right time to rebuild, and after years of sweat equity and penny pinching, they decided it was time to expand.

"Our first choice was to save something of the house," says 27-year-old Janice, a petite redhead with baby Brayden in tow. "We made it look cute but there's nothing here to save. It really should have been condemned."

They requested a meeting with city planners to go over initial plans for a new home. They were hoping that, the second time around, they would finally get the house of their dreams. They envisioned an early California-style stucco house with two stories and four bedrooms so their family could grow. That was in June 1998. A year later, they haven't moved an inch.

As residents argue the property rights of homeowners against the protection of San Jose's older neighborhoods, and city planners scramble to pen a revised copy of the design-review law, the Halls got caught in the crossfire, they say.

"We got caught in the middle of this whole architectural review," Brad says. "The city is trying to implement changes before the law is even passed.

"We have our first child. We want two more, and with a big family you can't live in a two-bedroom, one-bath home. Even if we remodeled the house, it isn't going to look like it does now."

Tear Down the Walls

In the realm of reconstruction, homeowners have two options: remodel or rebuild. Removing more than 50 percent of existing walls constitutes a demolition. Tearing down walls destroyed by termites, however, does not count as a demolition. If at least half of the termite-free walls are left standing, the construction constitutes a remodel, giving homeowners free reign over any additions or changes to their home. They could even add a second floor and couple thousand square feet, building a pink elephant right under the watchful eye of the planning department. And neither the city nor the neighbors would have any recourse.

The other choice is for homeowners to rebuild--but that requires a little more time, effort and cash. In San Jose, rebuilding a home requires a special use permit, letters of notification to all neighbors within 300 feet of the teardown and city approval.

"We're getting penalized for doing the right thing," Brad says. "I would not need a special use permit if I was 'remodeling' our house. If I went back to my architect and said let's redo this by keeping this one wall here, no one could do a thing; I wouldn't need a special use permit and I could bulldoze everything. We're caught between this push for architectural review and everyone's political agenda."

City officials tell a different story.

"We weren't trying to do a design review," senior planner Carol Hamilton contends. "We have lots and lots of special use permits and we try to get them to hearing in two or three weeks. The Halls' house had zoning code problems and an appeal. We have not been trying to slow them down."

For the next year, the Halls fought City Hall to rebuild their home. They say they were punished for following all the rules. City planners say their plans were flawed. Brad and Janice met with planners every step of the way to ensure a painless process, but every time they were given the go-ahead, they say, some new obstacle would stand in the way of groundbreaking. That's why they're in favor of a strict design-review ordinance.

What San Jose needs, they say, is a detailed group of architectural regulations set in stone to prevent political agendas or personal preferences from getting in the way of homeowners wanting to build. "We totally support design review," Brad says. "The city has to tell us what to design at the beginning of the process, not in the middle of it."

The current proposed design review requires city planners to review plans for new homes and remodels. Some homeowners say it throws another roadblock on the path to a new home, making for a lengthy and expensive process. They say it will discourage young families from moving to San Jose's older neighborhoods--who is going to roll the dice and pay thousands of dollars for property, an architect and a home plan that may or may not be approved by the city? While some Glenites worry that the proposed design review will make it virtually impossible to remodel or rebuild a home in San Jose, Brad and Janice say it will have the reverse effect--if it's done right.

San Jose's design review proposal is also small--6 1/2 pages. It's vague, too, with no specific architecture guidelines explaining what characteristics a house can or cannot have. The city says this is to prevent San Jose from turning into another Palo Alto or Los Gatos, but some residents, like the Halls, say this process is too subjective. It allows planners to approve or not approve a house plan based on individual taste.

Code Clash

The Hall's new home plans show a two-story, Spanish-style house. It's about 3,000 square feet with four bedrooms to accommodate two or three more Hall children, or at least that's the current projection, Brad and Janice say. It's not the size of the house that was called into question, however; it was the garages. In November 1998, the Halls and their architect met with San Jose planners to discuss design guidelines and to ensure that the concept for their new home would meet city code. In the conceptual drawing, the garages are split, one on the left side of the home and one on the right. Brad and Janice say the department fully supported their plans. However, their project manager, Phil Nameny, has since moved to Portland, Ore., and senior planner Carol Hamilton says she can't confirm the department's support.

Brad and Janice submitted a special use permit to planning to demolish their home on Willow Glen Way and build a new one in its place. In March, they got a call from Hamilton saying the house plans were not up to code. But she hadn't seen them yet, either.

"I supervised Phil, and he was the project manager for the plans they had submitted," Hamilton says. "I had been told by our planners that the plans did not conform to the zoning code because of the garage. We weren't doing a design review or anything. I clarified we could not approve the plans without having it meet code."

According to planning officials, one of the garages was detached from the rest of the house, a design that is not allowed unless the garage is set back 60 feet from the street.

Brad and Janice say their plans met all the code requirements.

"The garage was attached to the house by a series of arches," Brad says. "The archway is tied all the way to the back of the house, and that was our argument for the garage being attached."

The archway over the garage was in the initial conceptual plans skimmed over and approved by planners at the start of the process, Brad says. It then became a matter of personal design tastes.

"The most frustrating thing about this is that we sat down with the planning department before a single pen stroke was inked and they said this is perfect, go ahead.

"You submit anything that they [planning staff] are not comfortable with and you can just see their eyes glaze over like a deer in the headlights. The house met all their specifics, they were just trying to hold it up. When you hear someone like Carol Hamilton talking about your plans and saying 'I don't like it' you know you've got problems."

Hamilton denies telling Janice and Brad that she did not like their design.

Demolition Derby

Eventually the Halls gave in, replacing the archway with a roof that connected garage to house. On April 28, 1999, the planning director approved the Halls' special use permit. No one at the meeting spoke against the special use permit, and the couple thought they were on the road to construction. But their struggle wasn't over yet.

One month after the hearing, a neighbor filed an appeal.

"The house currently on the property is important to preserve for its contribution to the Willow Glen neighborhood," wrote Lee Goble, who lives behind the Halls, a few houses over, on Louise Avenue. "It is similar in character and appearance to the majority of the original homes on the street. [I] strongly oppose demolition of the current structure."

Goble and John Kiely, who live in a two-story remodeled house, did not return repeated phone calls from The Resident. Nor did Goble attend either of the two public hearings, the second of which would not have occurred if Goble had not appealed the Halls' teardown.

"It has cost us so much time and [Goble] didn't even have the decency to show up," Janice said, after the second public hearing. "And it's not just the time, it's the stress, the emotion.

"Our new house plan was five years in the making. It's Spanish style, it's set back from the street, we really thought this through to keep with the style and the character of the rest of the neighborhood."

Aside from a second public hearing, Goble's appeal demanded a historical analysis of the Willow Glen bungalow--even though the house was not included on the city's Historic Resources Inventory. The Halls' home didn't qualify for the inventory, but that's based on the analysis of another similar house.

Planner Susie Queirolo conducted the historical analysis. She drove by the house, never getting out of her car, and based the historical review on a teardown of similar age, style, size and run-down appearance in Willow Glen.

"I asked her, 'How are you able to do a thorough evaluation without getting out of your car?' But she wasn't willing to talk to us anymore after that," says Janice, noting the large cracks in the chimney and the foundation and the termite damage over most of the wood. "You have to at least walk up to the house to see this damage." Queirolo says she did review the Willow Glen Way house, but refused to comment on anything else.

Although their house passed the test, the Halls say the city's analysis, or lack thereof, left ample room for error.

"That's their opinion," Hamilton says. "I was involved in the review. I thought we made a reasonable decision to review this house by comparing it to one that had already been involved in the review process. I think it qualified the information the commission needed."

The review score did come up at the Planning Commission meeting; however, staff could only give an approximation, "about a 24," based on the other, similar, house review.

"This has been the worst experience of our lives," Brad says. "I'm 32 and I feel like I'm 85. These delays have cost us thousands of dollars and a heinous amount of stress. When you have a bureaucracy like that and bad communication on top of it, it's just a nightmare."

The Planning Commission finally approved the Halls' demolition on July 14. Brad, Janice and Brayden Hall and their three dogs will move in with Brad's parents until the new house is built. They hope it will take less than six months--but they won't consider it a win until the bulldozers start rolling.
Jessica Lyons

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Web extra to the July 29-August 4, 1999 issue of Metro.

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