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UC weighs what to do with abandoned president's mansion

Luxurious 13,200-square-foot Blake House near Berkeley has been deteriorating for years. Officials are considering alternatives to avoid $2 million for basic maintenance, $10 million for a full renovation.

October 04, 2010|By Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Kensington, Calif. — Blake House is a lonely, empty place these days.

The Mediterranean-style mansion near Berkeley that is intended to be the official residence of the University of California president has not been occupied since 2008.

Apart from three UC Berkeley social events this year, its grand entertainment rooms are chilly and silent, with most of its antique furniture now in storage. Its second-floor private suite, with stunning hilltop vistas of San Francisco Bay, badly needs refurbishment, and rat traps are placed throughout.

The future of the 13,200-square-foot house and more than 10 acres of gardens in the unincorporated Contra Costa County neighborhood of Kensington are under scrutiny against a backdrop of deep funding cuts to the university and criticism by UC staff and students over perks for its highly paid executives.

UC leaders are trying to decide whether to make repairs at Blake House that are estimated at $2 million, let alone a more ambitious $10-million renovation proposal to bring the 84-year-old mansion up to date.

Its disuse has also been costly. Since he arrived from the University of Texas two years ago, UC President Mark G. Yudof has lived elsewhere, in two successive houses leased by the university. The current one rents for $11,500 a month. And if he'd lived at Blake House, the university would have avoided an unresolved dispute with Yudof's first landlord over $50,000 in alleged damage, followed by a $40,000 moving bill.

Russell Gould, chairman of UC's Board of Regents, said that he does not expect the university to pay for significant repairs to the residence, and that renting a place where Yudof can live, hold meetings and entertain potential donors has been the more economical solution.

Blake House, where UC presidents had lived since 1968, "has great bones, but it is a money pit," Gould said.

Discussions about the property are underway with UC Berkeley, which owns the gardens and uses them as a teaching lab for landscape-architecture students. The most likely outcome is for the house to become a UC Berkeley conference or study center with no living quarters, Yudof said.

Other ideas have included razing and replacing the house, turning it into a residence for visiting scholars, or selling it while retaining the gardens for students. Any changes are likely to draw attention from the affluent Kensington neighborhood, whose residents stroll through Blake Gardens during weekday public hours.

Finding the right option is "challenging," said Jennifer Wolch, dean of UC Berkeley's College of Environmental Design. Blake House's main floor of large rooms with wood-paneled ceilings, marble fireplaces and panoramic windows "is very beautiful, and it's a perfect venue for certain types of functions," she said. But the residential floor above is "not at the standards one might want for the president of the system."

Under UC policy, its president and 10 campus chancellors must live in university-provided housing. The president's housing is covered by a privately funded endowment, not state funds, officials report.

The tradition of a ceremonial house for university presidents "has been handed down from the past," said Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education. But at budget-stressed public universities across the country, such houses have become "a source of great controversy. Nobody, particularly the faculty, wants to see money spent on them and so many of the houses have been allowed to deteriorate," he said.

Given the budget cuts and Yudof's $591,000 base salary, UC presidents should pay for their own housing and entertain at campus alumni centers and faculty clubs, said Claudia Magana, president of the UC Student Assn. Labor leaders make similar arguments against what they consider lavish perks for UC executives.

Yudof said he sees benefits to entertaining alumni and political leaders at an official residence, but may ask the regents to review the policy of maintaining housing for the president and chancellors. He said there may be merit in turning official houses to other uses and giving executives stipends for off-campus residences.

Blake House was donated to UC in 1962 by the estate of Anson and Anita Blake, heirs to a quarry and paving business. Since then, five of seven UC presidents have lived there. David P. Gardner, in the 1980s, wanted more privacy for his family and used Blake House only for formal events.

Robert Dynes, Yudof's predecessor, lived there for five years and described it as "pretty much unlivable," with roof leaks, mold and broken fixtures. He also recalled a tough commute to UC headquarters, which used to be in adjacent Berkeley but is now in downtown Oakland.

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