Blight in our eyes

Neighborhood, property owner square off over blighted corner on Park Avenue

This vacant house, owned by the city, is one of four on East 11th Street that regularly attracts squatters and associated nuisances to the surrounding neighborhood. The house in the background is owned by Hal LLC.

This vacant house, owned by the city, is one of four on East 11th Street that regularly attracts squatters and associated nuisances to the surrounding neighborhood. The house in the background is owned by Hal LLC.

Photo by Howard Hardee

The neighborhood on East 11th Street just south of downtown Chico is strange, to be sure. On one end of the street sits an immaculate yellow mansion, originally the home of A.H. Chapman and a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places. On the opposite end—the highly visible corner of East 11th Street and Park Avenue—is a dilapidated warehouse, the site of the old Taylor’s Drive-In and a former gas station, which makes a strong case for Chico’s biggest eyesore.

Adding to the oddity, four vacant houses in decidedly poor repair just east of the warehouse and adjacent to Little Chico Creek constitute what has become a micro-slum of sorts, attracting a continuous stream of squatters and associated nuisances—hard-drug use and sales, theft, nighttime disturbances and public defecation.

The neighbors, a mix of longtime homeowners and renters, are fed up. Retired Chico State professor Michele Shover, who owns the A.H Chapman House and three nearby rental homes, has organized neighborhood meetings on the issue and recently sent an extensive letter of complaint to Code Enforcement and local media “seeking action to remedy the dire condition of abandoned properties … on East 11th Street.”

Shover and her neighbors have laid blame at the feet of the property owners—Hal LLC, led by local businessman David Halimi, and the city of Chico. Ironically, Halimi said that Shover’s letter, which she also sent to one of Hal LLC’s business partners in Sacramento, stopped the process of rehabilitating the property in its tracks.

The city made an effort to address the issue in 2010, using redevelopment agency (RDA) funding to purchase two of the homes and begin the process of purchasing the other two homes and the warehouse property from Hal LLC, said Mark Wolfe, director of Planning Services.

The deal was contingent upon whether the city received a state grant to clean up contamination left behind by underground gas tanks. The city spent about $200,000 in RDA funding during the cleanup, but the state dissolved redevelopment agencies in early 2012, before escrow closed. The sale fell through, and two of the homes and the warehouse remained in Halimi’s possession, making for a patchwork of city- and Hal LLC-owned properties.

Since then, upkeep of the vacant houses has been sparse, the problems associated with transients have only gotten worse, and no outward signs of improvement are apparent, said Rob Cossetta during a recent interview at the East 11th Street home he rents with his partner, Mike Vance.

“The rockery in front of our fence, here, people have been sleeping there,” he said. Cossetta has made a morning ritual of cleaning up whatever squatters leave behind, and it’s almost always ugly.

“There were empty cigarettes they had emptied out and filled with crack, I guess, and once I found six used syringes,” he said. “Mike always finds those big bottles of vodka.”

“It’s always something,” Vance added, shaking his head.

Michele Shover, a retired Chico State professor and owner of the A.H. Chapman House, believes the vacant houses are a threat to the neighborhood.

Photo by Howard Hardee

“We’re certainly aware of the problems with the structures in those locations,” Wolfe said. “We have them all boarded up. Many times the police get calls there. It’s an ongoing issue and it’s in everyone’s interest to resolve it.”

During a recent interview, Shover was quick to make the distinction between the “worthy poor” and the “particular degraded population that endangers us,” emphasizing that she and her neighbors don’t fault the nearby Jesus Center.

She would like to see the properties either condemned and razed or handed over to Habitat for Humanity, an option the city is currently exploring, Wolfe confirmed. But Hal LLC still owns the house square in the middle of the property, and as long at it stands unoccupied, Shover maintains, the nuisances will persist.

“We’re not expecting the city to come in and buy the property again,” Shover said. “We’re sorry that didn’t work and we know they meant well.”

Shover said the city could use nuisance codes to force Hal LLC’s hand in either refurbishing or demolishing the buildings.

Halimi, meanwhile, has a much different story. He owns a number of properties around Chico, including Diamond W Western Wear, the building at Second and Main streets that houses Crush, Jamba Juice and Burgers & Brew, and the newly renovated building at 325 Broadway that houses Wanderful Media. He is currently an instructor with the management department at Chico State.

“I feel that my family and I have so, so unfairly been attacked and blamed for this,” he said during a phone interview. “I’m the first to say the property is not representative of the properties I have my name associated with. I take pride in my projects.”

Several years ago, Halimi said, the city approached Hal LLC with a proposal to purchase both the commercial and residential properties to make way for a mixed-use, low-income housing project. He evicted his tenants and the city began preparations for demolition, cutting gas and electricity to the houses and, in the case of the warehouse, changing the zoning code from commercial to residential.

Once the RDA money fell through, Halimi said, the city still had hopes of completing the purchase through other means. “Not too long ago, we finally realized they were never going to come back, the city lost the RDA money and they realized they were in much worse shape than before,” he said.

Hal LLC then began refurbishing the house nearest to Little Chico Creek, including hooking power back up (it’s currently ready to be rented, Halimi said) and doing the same to the old auto-upholstery shop attached to the warehouse.

Just last week, Halimi met with contractors about giving the Park Avenue warehouse a facelift, intending to make it more presentable from the street.

That same day, he received a call from Fite Development Co. in Sacramento, which was helping finance a separate Hal LLC project on Wall Street in Chico. The company had received Shover’s letter of complaint, and now has second thoughts about the partnership.

“So, the funds we had committed to refurbishing [the warehouse on] Park Avenue, which we had in fact started, have been pulled back in anticipation that we might have to buy our partners out of the Wall Street project,” Halimi said. “We have our hands tied.”