SHERMAN OAKS — Nearly four years after the Northridge earthquake, "keep out" signs and plywood sheets still cover the doors and windows of the 372-unit Oakwood apartment complex along Woodman Avenue.
Inside the quake-battered building, former tenants' personal belongings and publications bearing dates just before the Jan. 17, 1994, temblor lay abandoned in the dark rooms and hallways.
"It's like a time capsule in here," said Paul Jennings, co-owner of Public Communications Services, the firm that recently bought the two-story building. "It really solidifies the moment of destruction, when people scattered."
Long after most other damaged buildings have been repaired, the Oakwood--the largest complex in Los Angeles closed by the quake--stands as a lingering reminder of the destruction.
Jennings, 37, and partner Joe Fryzer, 50, bought the property from Travelers Insurance Co. after Travelers won it in bankruptcy court from embattled investors. They plan to turn it into a corporate housing establishment called the Woodman Promenade.
A small crew quietly started work earlier this month at the site, beginning a task that PCS executives hope will finally restore the Oakwood to the ranks of living buildings.
The Oakwood is the last and, by far, largest of 30 quake-damaged buildings in the area bought, rebuilt and now managed by PCS, a communications company that moved into real estate after the quake.
"It's been sitting and sitting and sitting," Jennings said. "We get calls from people wondering what we're going to do with it."
"It will demonstrate to the community that Sherman Oaks has finally recovered," said Scott Harvey of the city's community development department, which worked to reopen numerous other damaged buildings.
Part of the Oakwood national chain of corporate housing, the Sherman Oaks building was bought in the mid-1980s by California Seven Associates, a limited partnership with six other properties in Southern California.
The partnership, already weakened by an ailing real estate market in the early 1990s, could not afford to repair the Oakwood after the quake.
Sherman Oaks, one of the areas hit hardest, lost 25% of its population after the quake, much of the loss coming from apartment dwellers whose buildings were uninhabitable.
The rebuilding process began with widespread confusion among building owners and contractors, Jennings said. There was uncertainty about the city's earthquake retrofit requirements. Accurate rebuilding estimates were difficult to acquire, he said.
"We never had a disaster like this before," said Keith Corneliuson, executive vice president of PCS Property Management. "You don't come into this with any kind of expertise."
Jennings and Fryzer, New York natives with an inclination for the West Coast lifestyle, have operated their company out of Los Angeles for 10 years.
They had no real estate experience, but they also knew there were no real leaders in the field of rebuilding quake-damaged apartments. They had capital, and the quake presented a perfect opportunity to diversify, they said.
"We were taking a calculated risk that people would come back," said Jennings, a resident of Brentwood. "We are firm believers in California."
They reviewed the city's earthquake retrofit requirements and applied for low-interest disaster-relief loans from the city, state and federal governments to buy their first units.
Meanwhile, by March 1994, two months after the quake, California Seven had filed for bankruptcy.
"We started looking at [the Oakwood] as a favorable opportunity," said Dan Barbakow, a west Los Angeles attorney and chief negotiator for PCS. "It would require someone with a lot of vision to bring the building back."
But PCS would have a two-year wait while the fates of all California Seven properties were decided in court. At one point, California Seven offered Travelers a settlement in a last-minute effort to keep the properties, but it was rejected.
In March 1996, an Orange County judge foreclosed on all seven properties, siding with Travelers, which claimed California Seven owed $113.7 million in back loan payments, interest and other fees.
Travelers, a Connecticut-based company with a real estate division, took over the Oakwood that summer. But 15 months and $750,000 in consultant fees later, the company opted to sell.
PCS bought the Oakwood in October for $9 million. It plans to spend another $10 million on its repair.
PCS, which says it is the largest re-builder of quake-damaged buildings in the city, spent more than $100 million purchasing and repairing its first 1,200 units.
Jennings said 99% of the units in the 30 other buildings PCS restored, located from Sherman Oaks to Northridge, are now occupied.
Throughout its history as a "ghost town," --as such shattered and abandoned complexes were dubbed--the Oakwood avoided the nuisance problems associated with abandoned buildings because it had on-site security guards with dogs, Jennings said. He also credits the Neighborhood Watch program with keeping a vigilant eye out for intruders.
The small crew that began work this month will eventually grow to 200. The first stage of the yearlong project will include stripping the plaster walls and clearing the rooms of old furniture and other belongings. A Salvation Army truck parked at the site is collecting salvageable items.
The complex will open in stages, with some tenants moving in as early as June, Corneliuson said.
"When everyone would like to forget about the earthquake, [the Oakwood] is one of the last bastions that hasn't been touched," Jennings said. "You won't recognize it when it's done."