Sight for sore eyes

Long-blighted south Chico neighborhood on upswing, though ugliness lingers

This Queen Anne-style house at the corner of East 11th and Nelson streets in south Chico was recently renovated by owner Michele Shover, who lives in the A.H. Chapman House across the street.

This Queen Anne-style house at the corner of East 11th and Nelson streets in south Chico was recently renovated by owner Michele Shover, who lives in the A.H. Chapman House across the street.

Photo by howard hardee

For years, Rob Cossetta and his partner, Mike Vance, lived directly across East 11th Street from four vacant and neglected houses. While their south Chico neighborhood is quiet otherwise, the structures attracted all manner of nightly disturbances from squatters, hard drug users and criminals stashing stolen goods. Cossetta’s morning ritual became cleaning up what was left behind—empty liquor bottles, needles and glass pipes—and he’d often find unwelcome guests sleeping in the rockery along his property’s fence.

“I drove them off so many times I realized that my method had to change,” he said. That involved more tactfully asking them to leave—instead of cursing at them, he’d say, “it’s not all right for you to sit here”—and also getting creative: Cossetta piled his rockery full of rose bush trimmings, blackberry brambles and pine cones to make resting there a prickly proposition.

In recent months, Cossetta and Vance say, the neighborhood has turned around significantly. In February, two of the blighted houses were purchased from the city by Habitat for Humanity of Butte County and have since been demolished to make way for the construction of new homes. In the middle lot, two houses owned by development company Hal LLC are still standing, and the one nearest to the street—the other is set back toward Little Chico Creek—is currently being repainted.

And down the block, at the corner of East 11th and Nelson streets, the renovation of a previously vacant Queen Anne-style home is mostly complete thanks to owner Michele Shover. Shover is a retired Chico State professor and local historian who lives nearby in the yellow-and-white A.H. Chapman House, a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places.

The changes have provided a sense of positive momentum in the neighborhood, and Cossetta and Vance say they’ve had far fewer problems with squatters since construction began. Still, there may not be as sharp a contrast on one block in all of Chico. Opposite the stately historic homes stands a lingering eyesore: the decrepit empty warehouse on the corner of Park Avenue and East 11th Street, the site of the old Taylor’s Drive-In and a gas station—also owned by Hal LLC—which sits directly adjacent to the future Habitat homes.

It’s the last bit of blight in a neighborhood decidedly on the upswing.

“Anything would be an improvement,” Vance said of the warehouse, “even if they just level the whole thing.”

The properties on East 11th Street and Park Avenue have a long and convoluted history.

A deal would have transferred ownership of all the properties from Hal LLC, led by local businessman David Halimi, to the city if state funding hadn’t dried up following the Great Recession. In 2010, the city used state redevelopment agency (RDA) funding to purchase a pair of the homes and begin the process of purchasing the other two, along with the warehouse property. The deal was contingent upon whether the city received a state grant to clean up contamination left by underground gas tanks.

However, after the city completed the $200,000 cleanup, in early 2012 the state dissolved redevelopment agencies—before escrow closed. Two of the houses and the warehouse reverted back to Hal LLC, creating a patchwork of publicly and privately owned structures that were left to fall into further disrepair.

Partners Rob Cossetta and Mike Vance live on East 11th Street and say the neighborhood has quieted down significantly in recent months.

Photo by howard hardee

Until now. In February, the Chico City Council voted unanimously to approve Habitat for Humanity’s purchase and demolition of the two city-owned houses at 168 and 178 E. 11th St. Habitat will raise the walls of both houses during a ceremony at 10 a.m. this Saturday (June 27), said Executive Director Nicole Bateman. She expects construction to be completed by next February, noting that two low-income families with young children already have been chosen to move in.

Halimi has been neighborly, Bateman said. He’s aided Habitat’s progress by helping pay for fencing along Little Chico Creek, providing hook-ups to electricity and clearing trees and brush toward the back of the property.

As for proximity to Taylor’s Drive-In and the empty structure’s potential draw for homeless people, Bateman said: “We feel that once families are living there, there will be [fewer] transients moving back and forth.”

The issue remains on the city’s radar. At Vice Mayor Sean Morgan’s request, the City Council discussed Taylor’s Drive-In at a meeting in February. Hal LLC maintained it’s been unable to sell the property for a profit under the area’s current mixed residential zoning (the RDA had intended to use the site for low-income housing). Morgan proposed rezoning the area to community commercial, thereby increasing appeal to potential developers.

The idea met with resistance from Mayor Mark Sorensen and Councilwoman Ann Schwab, who argued that the city has already done enough for Hal LLC by facilitating the costly environmental cleanup.

The council voted 4-3 to revisit the issue at a future meeting.

Shover now owns five houses in the neighborhood, including three rentals on Nelson Street, the A.H. Chapman House—where she’s lived for the past 37 years—and the gleaming white Queen Anne-style home across the way.

Shover’s long kept her eye on the house, which was built in 1902 and, after years of neglect, was in danger of being bulldozed. She purchased it two years ago from local businessman Wayne Cook and hired Birchard Construction for renovation, which involved raising the entire 55,000-pound structure by several feet.

“The idea was to keep the original architecture, of course,” Shover said. “[Birchard] was very meticulous and creative about it. If they couldn’t keep what was original, they would figure out how to make it new.”

Now complete except for landscaping, the Queen Anne home stands beside the A.H. Chapman House as a modernized historical relic. (A couple recently moved into the upstairs apartment.)

Shover has long criticized Hal LLC’s management of Taylor’s Drive-In, but credited Halimi with being “super responsible” by aiding the Habitat projects. She does maintain that the neighborhood “still isn’t entirely free of this blight.”

“There has been remarkable progress,” Shover said. “This all re-establishes the neighborhood’s proper residential character. But we cannot forget that right on its border is the same old blight.”