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UC regents panel approves repairs to former president's home

A committee votes to spend $620,000 for seismic retrofitting of Blake House, a 13,000-square-foot home that's been empty the last five years. Others suggest the home should be sold.

September 17, 2013|By Larry Gordon
  • Blake House, a Mediterranean mansion on 10 acres in Contra Costa County, was donated to the University of California in 1957. University presidents began living there in 1968 but have not done so since 2008. A full renovation could cost from $3.5 million to $6 million.
Blake House, a Mediterranean mansion on 10 acres in Contra Costa County,… (Larry Gordon / Los Angeles…)

SAN FRANCISCO — The UC regents took a step toward possibly restoring a university-owned mansion to once again become the official residence for the system's president. Some regents, however, said it might make more sense to sell off the Contra Costa County property.

A regents committee approved initial repairs of Blake House, the estate where most UC presidents had lived since the 1960s but which has been empty for the last five years. The 13,200-square-foot-house, located about 11 miles north of the UC system's Oakland headquarters, needs a major overhaul, officials say.

Tuesday's vote, expected to be approved by the full board Wednesday, authorized spending $620,000 from a privately funded UC endowment for short-term seismic strengthening and roof repairs and for architectural and engineering studies about the long-range future of the house. Administrators have estimated that a full overhaul of Blake House could cost between $3.5 million and $6 million.

Several regents said they were willing to go along with the first step to protect the house from rain but were dubious about spending much more for a full face-lift. Some said the house's relatively remote location posed problems and they wondered whether a UC president even needed such a formal house for entertaining.

"I think we need to think this thing out very clearly," said Regent Frederick Ruiz, who described the house's location in the Kensington hills as inconvenient and its parking inadequate for large gatherings of alumni and donors. He and others suggested selling the property.

However, a sale would not enable regents to buy another house, according to Patrick Lenz, UC vice president for budget and capital resources. The mansion was donated to UC in 1957 and the gift restricts the use of any sale money except to support UC Berkeley's environmental studies and landscape architecture programs, he said.

Also, UC officials said neighbors would block any other use of the property, such as building more houses there.

Lenz said the studies would help determine the best use for the house, possibly as a presidential residence or perhaps as a center for meetings and to house visiting faculty. UC Berkeley's landscape architecture classes now work in the estate's 10 acres of gardens.

For now, incoming UC President Janet Napolitano will live in a 3,500-square-foot Oakland residence leased by the university for $9,950 a month. The rent is $2,550 per month less than what UC recently has been paying for current President Mark G. Yudof's Lafayette residence.

One of the arguments for restoring Blake House as a presidential home is that it would save money in the long run if UC no longer has to rent housing and entertainment locations elsewhere.

Napolitano, the former U.S. secretary of Homeland Security and governor of Arizona, is to begin her UC presidency Sept. 30, with her office at UC system headquarters in downtown Oakland. In addition to the free housing, Napolitano will receive her annual $570,000 salary, $8,916 a year for car expenses and $142,500 for one-time relocation costs.

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