SIGNAL HILL — At Cherry Avenue and Hill Street here stands a sprawling monster of a building known as the "White Elephant."
Construction on the 30-unit condominium complex began in 1979, but because of construction problems and bankruptcy proceedings, the building will not be completed until sometime this summer. With empty porthole windows that gape blindly down at City Hall, the White Elephant is a symbol of the kind of spotty development that came with the first flood of condominiums and is a reminder of the type of construction the government here will do anything to avoid.
"It (the building) has been in trouble since the beginning regarding high density, poor design and shoddy construction," said City Manager Louis Shepard. "That combination is a disaster, and we can't have that happen in the future."
The condominium project has been taken over by Golden State Sanwa Bank. "They have done a wonderful job of fixing the building up," said Christine Shingleton, director of planning and community development. She said the renovated complex is expected to open in the summer.
In its efforts to ensure future high-quality construction and erase a legacy of bad building, the City Council has angered local developers, who contend that the lawmakers have enacted a series of moratoriums and changed the building rules so often that the council has effectively taken their property rights away.
No Permits Since 1981
Not a single building permit has been issued for a new multi-family project since 1981.
The current moratorium, approved unanimously in April, stopped construction in most areas zoned R-4 for multiple-family dwellings.
"I feel like development in Signal Hill is a parlor room game," said developer Arne Hamala, whose plans to build a 141-unit condominium complex are on hold because of the recent moratorium. "We (developers) are like pawns being moved around . . .. I agree they have a bunch of junk on the hill, but my project is being tarred and feathered with a brush that should have been applied elsewhere."
Between 1975 and 1981, 1,330 condominium units were built in Signal Hill, primarily on land vacated when oil wells were abandoned. Lax building standards approved during that period by Old Guard city councils caused "a lot of really third-rate stuff" to be constructed, Shepard said.
The condominiums begun during that period had problems ranging from a Jacuzzi that sank through an underground garage to a trash dumpster area into which no garbage truck can fit.
But City Council elections in 1982 and 1984 replaced the Old Guard council members with a slate of officials whose campaign platform on residential development promised lower density and stricter building standards.
Since the new council took office in April, 1984, it has enacted three building moratoriums, prohibiting building on 220 of the 1,360 acres in the city.
General Plan Overhaul
The most recent moratorium, which is the most sweeping, halted all approval of multi-family construction until the city can overhaul Signal Hill's general plan, building densities and zoning maps. Some of the neighborhoods zoned as multiple family could be reduced to single-family by next March, when the process of amending the general plan and zoning maps should be completed.
Though the council upgraded building standards in August, 1983, and R-4 density was reduced from a maximum of 43 units per acre to 27, those revisions did not affect zoning. Currently, only two blocks in the entire town are zoned for single-family dwellings; the rest is zoned for condominiums and apartments.
"In 1983, we changed the density in the R-4 zone," said City Councilman Gerard Goedhart. "But the question we should have asked was whether we really wanted that much R-4."
The answer, Goedhart said, is no.
If multi-family zoning is reduced, developers say, property values will drop markedly. But such an occurrence will be only one more in a long string of problems they say they have with the city government here.
"The moratoriums affect us and all the other property owners in the impacted area," said Jerrel Barto, a partner in a development firm called the Signal Hill Co., which is suing the city for $27 million in a development dispute. "Not only can you not build; you cannot even plan. You do not know what they want, and they don't know what they want either.
"If you cannot make any plans for any use at all for your property, your value is zero," he said. "This is like inverse condemnation. They've taken our land away without due process."
Barto, his son, Craig, and developer Byron Tarnutzer began negotiating in late 1982 for 214 acres of land owned by Shell California Production Inc. In 1983, the city changed its density regulations. In April, 1984, the council enacted its first two moratoriums, and weeks later the Barto/Shell sale closed.
What Tarnutzer and the Bartos were left with, they contend, is a useless piece of property.
6 Projects Stalled