LONG BEACH — Weekends are work times at the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity house on Elm Avenue downtown.
There are walls to be painted and wooden beams to be stripped. Two huge roots need to be dug out of the back yard to make way for a volleyball court. Throughout the five-bedroom, two-story house and its grounds, fraternity members are busy waxing wood floors, pulling weeds and sanding cement steps.
The Cal State Long Beach fraternity embarked on the ambitious restoration as part of an agreement with city officials. TKE members promised to restore the building, built in 1907, to its original condition in exchange for city permission to operate the first fraternity house in a residentially zoned area in 26 years.
Fraternity members said they made a down payment on the $305,000 house over the summer, then began renovations before obtaining city approval to use the house for the group.
Then, with restoration under way, they appeared before the Long Beach Planning Commission several times to request that the fraternity house be approved, which would allow the group to close escrow.
The commission's staff opposed the request, but the panel unexpectedly voted to allow the fraternity house to operate for at least five years.
"We spent a lot of time questioning the young men," said Patricia Schauer, head of the Planning Commission. "Our feeling was that they will be good neighbors."
The fraternity's success may prompt similar requests from other fraternities. Only a third of the Cal State Long Beach fraternities have houses of their own.
Stuart Farber, the university's director of student life and development, said: "I don't know if this is a signal from the city or not, but I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of fraternities and sororities followed suit."
Until now, the city has generally favored restrictions on fraternity and sorority houses in Long Beach.
In 1964-79, according to Dennis Eschen, Long Beach's zoning administrator, the houses were allowed only in commercial zones. Then 11 years ago, he said, the city enacted an ordinance permitting fraternity or sorority houses in residential districts--but only after mandatory public hearings at which nearby residents could voice their concerns.
Since then, no Greek organization has been able to overcome neighbor opposition. "The traditional behavior of fraternities in Long Beach has been one where they made nuisances of themselves in terms of noise, litter and parking," Eschen said.
Other area cities have had similar experiences. A TKE house in Fullerton was shut down last year after a Labor Day melee in which police were pelted with eggs when they tried to break up a party involving hundreds of students. The group's charter was later revoked by its national organization.
And a Superior Court judge, rejecting a challenge by TKE and two other fraternities to a Fullerton law requiring them to obtain conditional use permits, branded the groups "a public nuisance."
But in Long Beach, the Planning Commission approved the proposal after neighbors testified in support of the fraternity, saying that its members' presence during work parties had already reduced crime in the area, the commission's Schauer said.
The house is across town from campus, a block from downtown businesses along Long Beach Boulevard. The neighborhood is a high-crime area frequented by vagrants and gangs.
Schauer said the commission was also impressed by the group's efforts to start a Neighborhood Watch program on the block and by its promise to restore the house to its original historical condition.
The restoration promise caught the attention of Ruthann Lehrer, the city's historic preservation officer. Describing the TKE house as an excellent example of the Colonial Revival Craftsman style of architecture popular in the early part of the century, Lehrer said she has encouraged fraternity members to research the history of the house to determine whether it might qualify for landmark status.
A former hospice for people with acquired immune deficiency syndrome, the structure had stood vacant for seven months. As a result, Lehrer said, it was vulnerable to vandals--and potentially attractive to developers who would demolish it to make way for apartments.
"In a stronger real estate market, it would have been bought by developers and demolished," Lehrer said. "Now that threat has been removed."
To earn the purchase price, the fraternity--which has 65 members--borrowed money from alumni and conducted fund-raisers. A relatively new group on campus, TKE expects to be chartered by its national Indiana-based organization early next year.
Just 10 members have moved into the house since receiving the city's official approval early in September, but the group plans to use the facility for membership parties, projects and various social gatherings.