In 2002 a fire destroyed part of the hundred-year-old Victorian on the corner of 18th and Shotwell Streets, across the street from St. Charles Borromeo School, a historical landmark built in 1887.
Since that time, the Victorian has been an eyesore, a home for the homeless, a magnet for rats, graffiti, ads, and artwork, according to complaints from neighbors and public records.
Why doesn’t the city do something about it? Turns out, they did – albeit, nearly eight years after it was damaged in the 2002 fire. Records show neighbors complained regularly, and the city forced the owner to fix some problems, but the city’s most recent actions, declaring it blighted, might actually initiate real change – a result, the city says, of a new abandoned building ordinance that took effect late last year.
“The thrust of the ordinance is to try and get people to do in a year some of the work that needs to be done on these properties, rather than letting them be an eyesore,” said Bill Strawn, spokesman for the Department of Building Inspection.
Strawn said that, before the ordinance was in effect, the city would respond to complaints filed by neighbors or the police and go through a similar process of fixing issues piecemeal. However, there weren’t set guidelines on how much time owners would get or how much repair ought to be done.
The process wasn’t laid out, and most of the properties in question were forgotten. The new ordinance, he said, provides a framework and time limits for getting the owners of poorly maintained empty buildings to fix them. If owners ignore the city, they face a roughly $7000 fine.
So far, the department has sent letters targeting 243 dangerous or unsightly buildings in San Francisco; 151 of them have registered.
Another 34 properties are in violation. These owners have received two letters without responding and may face the larger fine. If that larger fine continues to go unpaid, the property could have a lien placed against it, prohibiting its sale until the lien’s dealt with.
The building here at 18th and Shotwell is an example of that ordinance in action. The Department of Building Inspection told the owners earlier this year that they had to both pay $765 to register it as an abandoned building and fix it with a year.
The multi-unit structure has been owned by Ping and Nancy Cheuk since 1981, when they bought it for $128,000, according to public documents.
It was during the 2002 World Cup, Ping Cheuk said, that the fire occurred. A man living there turned the stove or gas on downstairs at the Mexican Restaurant, and then went upstairs to watch the game. The neglected fire substantially damaged the building, and it’s been an eyesore ever since.
The Cheuk family tried to fix the building in 2003, or at least they applied for a permit to “erect a four story two-unit residence bldg with restaurant,” according to public records. That was never approved.
“I have tried to get a permit since 2003,” Ping Cheuk said over the phone on Thursday. “I still don’t have the permit yet; I just go to the city planning today.”
He wasn’t able to explain why it’s taking so long, saying his English wasn’t very good. He said he hired a designer to deal with the permits and plans, Kung-Yuen Chiu.
Chiu said the city lost the plans. Cheuk’s daughter, Jeanette, wrote in an email that the family wanted to raze the existing structure, which was built in 1900. However, the city wanted them to renovate, rather than replace, she said.
Years passed. Then, in February of this year, building inspectors decided it was a problem, abandoned and a possible fire hazard. Inspectors came by, Cheuk responded, and the building became a registered abandoned building.
Cheuk now has a year to fix the property, either bringing it to code, or renovating the whole thing for use.
“We decided to resubmit to the city,” Chiu, the designer, said.
And there is a permit application listed in the city’s records, filed March 2010, to “repair, remodel 1st and 2nd floor due to fire.” It lists the intent to remodel for two apartments and the downstairs restaurant, at a cost of $250,000.
The new permit application includes a note that it “replaces previously canceled/disposed” application, which was originally filed in 2003, a year after the fire. Records show that application was extended multiple times before it was eventually canceled in 2008.
Meanwhile, building inspection records show that complaints were filed in 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2010 regarding the state of the building. It was leaning ominously and had a dangerous awning. The 2007 complaint alleged that the building was unsecured, and people were living in it.
Those issues have been dealt with, but Cheuk couldn’t address the question of why the building didn’t have contact information posted on it, one of the requirements for having a registered abandoned building.
Chiu said he hoped to begin working on the building in the next three or four months, depending on the permit process and the neighbors.
If 3246 18th Street stays as it is, it will be declared a public nuisance, and Cheuk will face much larger fines.
When the San Francisco supervisors were first discussing the ordinance, “no city agency had a database listing these things,” Strawn said. Staff had to guess how many properties were lingering in dangerous condition.
He said it’s too soon to have much data on how the abandoned building registration is working, and so far no one has appealed the fee yet.