Bulldozing the dream

City destroys building that many saw as a historic landmark, but which one vocal neighbor dubbed a dangerous eyesore

Then and now: Mario Moreno stands in front of the rubble that was once… (see photo below)

Then and now: Mario Moreno stands in front of the rubble that was once… (see photo below)

Photo By Jill Wagner

Mario Moreno sorted through a massive pile of rubble, the remnants of his bulldozed dream. Bricks and boards were piled in an enormous heap, scattered with chunks of yellow fiberglass. A shiny new air conditioner sat atop the pile.

Moreno, together with friends and supporters, tried to salvage what they could and talk about what had just happened. He had been given just 30 minutes to remove his belongings before his building was destroyed, demolished by the city earlier that day.

The group worked through the twilight hours of this Jan. 31 evening, sorting through piles of wreckage, extracting personal belongings that were buried underneath. Some were people who had helped Moreno work to restore the 90-year-old building at 48th and Q streets.

It was a strange, surreal scene in an otherwise typical American neighborhood. Couples were out walking their dogs, children were riding their bikes, and families could be seen through their windows, preparing a meal after a long day of work.

Normally, Moreno would have spent the evening working on the building, as he regularly did after his day job doing landscaping work. It was a labor of love to which he had devoted hundreds of hours of his time—but that was all over now.

Moreno took a long drag from his Marlboro Red cigarette. His hands looked dry and had dirt beneath the nails. For a man whose dream had just been demolished, his composure remained remarkably calm and collected. His emotions were revealed solely through his chocolate-colored eyes, which appeared hollow and somber.

Curious neighbors stopped by Moreno’s property, wondering about the building that was present in the morning and gone by the night. Some were outraged, others were saddened, but the general feeling was that of confusion: Why would the city demolish a building that meant so much to one man? Why would they do this to a man who poured his heart, money and time into the restoration of what many considered a historical landmark in the Elmhurst neighborhood? Why did this building have to go?

While many visitors stopped by to console Moreno or rant against the city, there was one next-door neighbor who remained quiet through it all, silently happy that the building had finally been destroyed—something he had been pushing for all along.

The dream
Mario Moreno had a dream. He knew it wouldn’t be easy to extend the life of this aging structure—one labeled a dangerous building by the city—but that was his dream.

The massive brick building had a rich history. Completed in May 1910, it had been a butcher shop, a barbershop and a deli. For nearly 30 years, before Hiram Fong sold the building to Moreno, the building was a neighborhood convenience store called One Stop Market.

Having grown up in the neighborhood, Moreno remembers going to the market as a child: “It’s kind of ironic that I wound up buying it, trying to make something out of that situation.”

Faced with the need to do structural work on the aging building, Fong closed his store in 1995. Next-door neighbor Ken Magee offered to buy the property. His plans were to raze the building and build a garage.

But instead, Fong chose to sell to Moreno, whom Fong had known since Moreno was a 5-year-old kid in the neighborhood. Moreno and Fong both wanted to see the building preserved and restored, so Fong turned the building over to Moreno.

“I always got along with Mario,” Fong said. “I had trust in his family and knew that Mario was very reliable.”

Moreno hoped to turn the building into an establishment that he could open up to the public. While he alternately toyed with the ideas of one day opening a Mexican restaurant, coffee shop or day-care center, his basic goal was to preserve the building.

“I wanted the neighborhood to be able to appreciate the building the same way that I did,” Moreno said.

Neighbors, friends and family were more than willing to pitch in, often volunteering their labors. The assistance was given partially because of the shared passion for preserving this building and partially because of the love and support they felt for Moreno.

Neighbors, such as Chip Miller, describe Moreno as “the salt of the earth. He’s a good person. He’s honest. At first, you may think Mario to be living on the fringe of society [because of his disheveled appearance]. But if you look closely, you’ll see that he is one of the better persons living in it.”

Miller and others spent countless hours working on the building. Over time, Moreno and his helpers were able to make a variety of renovations, including the installation of new electrical wiring, sewer connections, windows, insulation and sheet rock.

“I was amazed with the progress Mario made,” Fong said. “It looked like a new place and was looking really good. He had to be at least 80 percent of the way done.”

Though Moreno was willing to invest countless hours and he says more than $40,000 in the renovation of the building, he knew that the road to success would be bumpy, particularly because of the baggage Fong had left behind.

In 1995, the city began an enforcement action against Fong due to the substandard and dangerous conditions of his store. He started the work, but in 1998 sold the property to Moreno, who immediately took heat from Sacramento officials for the building not being up to code.

In November of that same year, Moreno was officially put on notice by the city to either repair or demolish the building. Since he was working so hard on plans to repair the building anyway, Moreno didn’t appeal the order, instead pulling his building permits and getting to work.

Yet the project proved even more challenging than Moreno anticipated. The work took lots of time and money, and so did dealing with the city’s bureaucracy. He was presented with a long list of deadlines, and faced fines of nearly $5,000 for missing them. He was called into administrative hearings to explain why he hadn’t made enough progress. All of this cost Moreno time and money that he didn’t have, setting the project back.

By August 2000, the city finally put Moreno on notice that the building would be destroyed within 60 days if the work wasn’t completed, a deadline that would be extended by another 60 days as Moreno made significant progress on the work.

…a 90-year-old brick building at the heart of the Elmhurst neighborhood.

In the last four months of 2000, city building inspector John Vanella made a half-dozen visits to Moreno’s property, signing off the work he had done on the foundation, frame, plumbing, electrical and gas systems, walls and floor.

In this phase of construction—the inspection phase before Moreno would be allowed to complete the project with drywalling, fixtures and the rest of the cosmetic work that leads up to final approval—Moreno notes with dismay that the air-conditioning system was all he needed to complete to avoid the demolition.

“The only thing I had to do was hook up the ducts and the air conditioner to get off the dangerous buildings list,” Moreno said.

The idea that Moreno’s building was destroyed while being so close to approval is what angered many neighbors and prompted them to vocalize their displeasure with the city.

On the early Sunday afternoon of Feb. 4, more than 100 people gathered near Moreno’s rubble. The chain-link fence that surrounded the property was covered with posters of protest: “Is this America?,” “Love thy neighbor,” “What Happened?,” “Crime Scene.” An American flag hung upside-down.

The supportive crowd gathered around Moreno as he held up a microphone. Moreno, neatly groomed, looked like a child on the first day of school. Remaining even-tempered and calm, Moreno spoke to his friends and neighbors.

“The city will have you believe that I sat on my ass for five years. I beg to differ. And I beg you to differ,” pleaded Moreno. “Anybody who knows me, my family, the struggle we’ve been going through, and I’m asking you for your community support.”

And support he got. The crowd of supporters cheered him on, chiming in words of encouragement throughout his speech. People shed tears as Moreno continued disclosing the trials and tribulations of his unfulfilled goals and shattered dreams.

Activist and former mayoral candidate Julie Padilla, who is Moreno’s niece, stepped up to the microphone to let her voice be heard: “This is not just a familial issue, this is a community issue, and I think what we need to do is to not just let this be a disgrace. Let it be a law, that we come together and we absolutely demand reparation.”

She lashed out at city bureaucrats for acting against the interests of Moreno and the neighborhood, and declared, “We will hold the city accountable, and I will not rest, my family will not rest, and I trust that everybody in this crowd will not rest until we see this set right.”

Many in the construction trades testified to Moreno’s progress and hard work, criticizing the rashness of the city’s action. Petitions were passed around the buzzing crowd, accumulating nearly 200 signatures from a crowd that grew as the day went on.

Meanwhile, Ken Magee and his wife, Dottie, stood side-by-side on their front yard, greeting an occasional passerby with stiff body language and disingenuous smiles. Their presence elicited sporadic snickers, glares, boos and even threats from the crowd, many of whom believed that Magee was somehow responsible for his injustice.

Elmhurst is an old neighborhood, with full-grown trees and aging homes. On 48th Street, the Magees house stands out: a freshly remodeled, two-story home that has the look of a new tract home.

“As you can see, my house is not a normal house,” said Magee. “It is huge. It is well done. It is now worth what it should be worth.”

By “now,” Magee means now that Moreno’s building has finally been destroyed, something he had been urging the city to do for years, even shouting at visiting building inspectors to do the deed. He freely admits “bugging the city to get them to do something.”

Kerry Freeman, a board member of the Elmhurst Neighborhood Association agreed. “Ken Magee has been very active in holding the city accountable for their own codes and ordinances,” Freeman said.

Magee claimed to worry about safety factors. After the death of his father in a brick accident, Magee claimed to have “had terrible thoughts and visions of what could have happened, like if there was an earthquake,” and feared that the bricks could have hurt his daughters or a passing neighbor.

Another safety concern was that the building blocked the view of the road, creating a safety hazard for the Magees as they were trying to pull out of their driveway. But Magee also admits that a big reason for being vocal was self-interest: He wanted the building destroyed and to buy the property to build a garage.

“I knew that the store was going in decline. The city told me that it could only be a mom-and-pop store, and I figured that no one would buy it because of the regulations,” Magee said. “I bought [my home] with the knowledge that the building would go back to a residential home.”

Despite the fear of an unsafe building, or of an inconvenient neighborhood eyesore, Magee was concerned about the value of his large, extended home. According to Magee, “Every time my house was appraised, I would find out that my house wasn’t worth as much because of the brick building next to it.”

Public interest
Josh Pino, the chief inspector for the city’s Code Action Team, was the person who ultimately decided to bulldoze Moreno’s building. He denies that the decision was influenced by pressure from Magee, or that the city didn’t give Moreno ample opportunity to renovate the building.

“We were more than compassionate with him,” Pino said.

Pino notes that the city has spent more than five years trying to get the owners of the building to bring it up to code. They have extended deadline after deadline, going above and beyond city requirements in an effort to help Moreno fulfill his dream, and clearly laying out the consequences for failing to do so.

“If anybody in this city has had ample opportunity to save this building, it was him,” Pino said. “The ball was always with him to continue to finish the work.”

Yet ultimately, Pino and Vanella finally just lost confidence that Moreno could finish the project. Pino said Moreno was “bluffing us and stalling,” failing to contact inspectors at key times, and they believe that someone was illegally living in the building (something Moreno denies).

“We tried to the very last minute trying to get him to finish,” said Pino. “Honestly, I think it would have been at least another three years before it would have gotten finished.”

If the city had concluded that the building was a lost cause, Moreno’s supporters question why he was encouraged by the city to put so much time and money into the project, leading almost up until demolition day. And they ask the simple question: What was the public interest served in bulldozing this building?

“The building was built before I was born, and I hoped that it would still be there when I was gone. It was my legacy,” Moreno said. “I wanted to be remembered by that building. I have no children. I wanted that to be my contribution to the community. That part of my dream has been destroyed. A big part of me has been destroyed.”