David Chorak never thought it would come down to this.
But after 11 years of salvaging two 1920s-era cottages in the county’s oldest neighborhood, the Los Rios Historic District, he is proposing what he had once considered unthinkable. Chorak wants to tear them down.
“It’s a crying shame is what it is,” said Chorak, a masonry contractor who was born in San Juan Capistrano 48 years ago. “But I’m fed up. I’ve had it with every one . . . over in City Hall.”
Jacaranda, palm and pepper trees line the tiny streets of the old neighborhood, just across the railroad tracks from the 95-year-old San Juan Capistrano Depot. Some of the old homes in Los Rios are made of adobe, while most are made of wood in the old board and batten style.
Chorak operates one building as a combination antique store and bed and breakfast inn called Hotel California, and he lives in the other. But vandals and thieves pick away daily at his cottages, he says.
“I’ve put every dime I’ve made in 10 years into Los Rios Street and do you think anybody appreciates it?” he asked. “With all the stealing and vandalism that goes on around here, I’d have to be on a vigil full time to protect my property. The whole idea of saving this area, the way I see it, is dead.”
The last straw, according to Chorak, was the city Redevelopment Agency’s plan to put a Department of Housing and Urgan Development-sponsored, low-cost housing project in the neighborhood.
City Councilman Lawrence F. Buchheim, a longtime local rancher, said he has heard about Chorak’s plan but doesn’t understand it.
“This City Council is very attuned to the importance of that Los Rios area,” Buchheim said. “It’s home to several dear friends of mine. I know what it’s like to walk down that street and have it look like it has for 50 years. It’s refreshing.”
The HUD project will not compromise the integrity of the neighborhood, Buchheim said.
“Some of the homes will be remodeled from structures already there. The others will be built to blend into the area, and I’d like to see them occupied by people in our community,” Buchheim said. “We have plenty of people in this community who could use them.”
But Chorak disagrees that the neighborhood will ever improve.
“The whole idea of preserving this area is over; the HUD project tells you that. I gambled here and I lost. I thought we could really have something here, but I was wrong. And it breaks my heart.”
Instead of the two tiny wood-frame cottages, Chorak said he wants to build one home on the 0.16 acres, on stilts away from the traffic. He would then use the ground area for parking.
But the neighborhood was named to the National Register of Historic Sites in 1983, and landowners must go through several steps to make structural changes.
The city’s Planning Commission will consider Chorak’s request tonight. The city staff, however, has recommended denial.
Local historian Pamela Hallan-Gibson, a member of the city’s Cultural Arts and Heritage Commission, said her group recommended a denial of Chorak’s application. She said she would rather see him sell the buildings.
Besides being considered the oldest street in Orange County, Los Rios Street and the nearby Little Hollywood area are also thought of as among the oldest in the state. The area dates back to the early days of the 214-year-old Mission San Juan Capistrano.
The two homes owned by Chorak, at 31720 and 31742 Los Rios St., were each owned by historic San Juan Capistrano families. The “Frank Valasquez House” bears the 31720 address and was constructed about 1922. The other home is known as the “Ygnacio Soto House.”
Both families trace their roots to the mission period, Gibson said.