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Community businesses buckle under East Palo Alto’s building code crackdown

By Joshua Adam Hicks | 6 Apr 2011

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Signs at the former site of Whole House Building Supply show that the business has moved from East Palo Alto (Photo: Joshua Adam Hicks)

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Paul Gardner ran Whole House Building Supply from the same East Palo Alto complex for 15 years. His facility had no electricity, no windows, no bathrooms and leaky roofs for much of that time, but he never saw a building inspector until 2008.

Last month, Gardner decided to move his business to San Mateo following a code-enforcement crackdown that threatened to cost him tens of thousands of dollars in renovations.

“Something changed – some sea change in attitudes, and for some reason the issue of codes came to the forefront,” he said.

That something could be that the city approved a five-year program to implement ambitious redevelopment plans that cover most of the community’s non-residential neighborhoods. The inspections began at Whole House just a few months later.

Gardner’s business is deconstructing old homes and reselling the building materials. He salvages everything from cabinets and window frames to sinks and nails, hoping to prevent them from filling garbage dumps, and reduce further consumption of resources. His company also employs ex-convicts to help decrease recidivism rates.

East Palo Alto is an anomaly to the Silicon Valley, one of the few poverty-stricken burgs in a wealthy and highly educated region. But the city has been playing catch-up to its well-to-do neighbors in the past decade, erecting new shopping centers, office complexes and starter homes for area techies. The goal of the city’s five-year redevelopment program is to continue that trend.

The catch is that certain well-meaning organizations are falling to the wayside. Code enforcement has caused a miniature closure epidemic along East Palo Alto’s Pulgas Avenue, where much of the commercial and industrial property is now zoned for urban mixed-use and new homes.

Eugene Jackson buckled to pressure from inspectors after opening a makeshift gym in an industrial complex about a mile down the road from Gardner’s business. He made the facility available to youth, mixed martial artists, and residents trying to fight obesity – all without charge.

The operation was charitable in more ways than one. A barber used to volunteer his services cutting hair in a closet-sized shop adjacent to the gym, and adults who trained at the complex would cook free dinners for the kids, making simple meals like spaghetti or rice with beans.

But Jackson – a former street kid turned community activist, martial-arts fighter and father of five – also hosted occasional parties at the gym. Some of the nighttime gatherings drew more than 400 people, each of whom paid $15 to help fund the gym operator’s various outreach programs.

Eugene Jackson works with a youth at the free gym he once operated. (Photo: Julia James)

City officials took notice of Jackson’s operation after a fire broke out in a neighboring auto repair shop in 2008. The Menlo Park Fire District inspected his place in August 2009 and found a slew of code violations, including an unstable mezzanine, inadequate parking facilities, and a lack of fire sprinklers, restrooms and emergency exits.

Jackson threw his own money – somewhere between $25,000 and $60,000 according to his varying estimates – into the building. But he could never get the inspectors off his case. They kept coming back with more problems to fix, he said.

“Everything they could do to make life miserable for me, they did,” he said.

Jackson, nicknamed “The Wolf,” defied his training as a mixed martial-arts fighter and threw in the proverbial towel four months ago.

Gardner and Jackson both said they suspect the city is using aggressive code enforcement to pave the way for its development plans.

“They’re more worried about getting their money out of a place instead of having to relocate someone later,” Jackson said.

Frank Rainone, East Palo Alto’s chief building official, claims the city has done nothing of the sort.

“We don’t make people move out of their buildings because we want someone else in there, or because it’s zoned and we don’t allow these type of uses,” he asserted. “We purely look at code violations and cite code violations based on what we see in the field.”

Rainone suggested that the city’s real goal with code enforcement is to protect people, as well as the buildings themselves. He said he doesn’t want a catastrophic incident similar to the Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed 100 people in 2003. In that case, the facility had no fire-sprinkler system.

Rainone said he could not explain why the city stepped up its code-enforcement efforts on Jackson and Gardner in 2008, but he reiterated that redevelopment had no bearing on the situation.

Jackson, who runs his own carpentry business, paid $4,000 a month to rent the space that housed his gym. He said reaching full code compliance for the facility would have cost an additional $30,000 on top of what he had already invested in renovations.

Part of the reason Jackson opened his gym was to draw troubled youths off the streets.

“A lot of kids, they grip onto power,” he said. “The bullies in school are always the popular kids, the athletes are popular kids, the kids that fight. We brought the fight world, but centered it around people who are god-fearing.”

Success stories abound from Jackson’s former gym. Dozens of community members showed up at public hearings last fall to testify about how the operation impacted their lives. One woman said she lost over one hundred pounds exercising there.

Doug Caraway owns a business selling and servicing audio equipment in the same industrial complex where the fitness center was located. He said Jackson deserves a key to the city.

Jackson acknowledges that he gave up trying to find non-profit money to help him bring the gym into compliance after just a few attempts. He said he had no previous experience applying for grants, and he grew tired after hearing ‘no’ from the first several funding sources he contacted.

Today, Jackson’s gym sits vacant, but tenants in the adjoining buildings say that kids keep coming back to the complex, unaware that the operation shut down months ago.

“When they come, we don’t know what to say,” said Patrick Brock, property manager for the entire industrial complex. “We don’t want to say ‘Your dream is over, end it.’

“If I had the money, I’d give it to Eugene myself.”

Jackson said most of the kids who return to his old facility are simply out of luck now, although he’s been able to help a few of the youths – only the most serious and talented – finagle their way into a paid Santa Clara gym.

As for Gardner, he said it’s too early to tell whether Whole House will find success in its new digs, located on a service drive that fronts Highway 101. What he does know is that his customers appreciated the facility in East Palo Alto.

“Every single one of them loved the site,” he said. “They loved the trees, they loved the location. It was right on the way to Home Depot. People stopped at my place on the way over there, they stopped at my place on the way back.”

Whole House regulars still return to the former East Palo Alto shop these days, only to find that the operation is no longer there.

Redwood City resident Martin Garcia drove his truck to the old warehouse on March 8, and said he was there to peruse for bargain doors, sinks, windows and cabinets. Instead he found a sign saying the business had moved.

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