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City, Landlord at Odds Over Zoning : Housing: Owner of historic building accuses Pomona of sabotaging a downtown rebirth by evicting 40 tenants. Officials say safety issues are at stake.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In an ongoing dispute over zoning laws, the city has evicted about 40 tenants of a historic building downtown.

The move is only the latest in a squabble between Pomona and owner Robert E. Dahms, who accuses the city of sabotaging a downtown revival and harassing him because it secretly wants to take title to the property for redevelopment. Many of the former tenants are artists who rented spaces in the five-story structure where they could both live and work.

City officials say his complaint is nonsense. They maintain there are important “life safety” issues at stake.

“The residential occupancy that was occurring did not meet the safety standards of our fire department and our building department,” said Severo Esquivel, Pomona’s city manager.

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But even Esquivel concedes that Pomona does not know exactly what the owner must do to bring the building up to code so that it can be approved for residential use. Overlapping and at times conflicting city zoning laws, county and city fire codes, ordinances and city plans also confuse the issue, which Esquivel says will take up to 60 days to sort through and resolve.

Some observers worry that the controversy will have a chilling effect on a budding urban arts revival in what was once one of the most blighted and deserted areas of the city. But Esquivel scoffed at that notion.

“We are very supportive of the downtown, the arts colony concept, and we’re working to make that happen, but we need to clarify the law,” he added.

A 1994 report prepared by HyettPalma, a Virginia planning firm that specializes in urban revitalization, strongly encouraged mixed use in Pomona’s downtown area and called the nascent artists colony a pivotal force in the renewal of the city center.

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About 200 artists live and work in downtown Pomona. Many involved in revitalizing downtown are watching closely to see whether the city and the owner can work out a compromise.

“It’s sort of this test case,” said Ed Tessier, a downtown property owner who is in the process of converting some of his historic buildings into mixed-use lofts.

To complicate matters, a number of Dahms’ tenants have their own complaints about The Towers. Some claim that Dahm misled them about the permitted use of the building and now refuses to return their security deposits.

Esquivel says the tenants were “evacuated” just before Christmas and that some were placed temporarily in emergency shelters at a downtown motel provided by the city.

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One angry tenant is Joseph Wydryk, who said he paid $10,000 in rent and security deposits and made $3,800 worth of improvements to the ground floor of The Towers, which he wanted to convert into a dance hall for music concerts.

Now his plans are on indefinite hold.

“We were conned,” Wydryk said. “He told me his building was perfectly safe.”

Wydryk said he and other tenants plan to present their grievances at the City Council meeting scheduled for Monday.

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Dahms denies the charges and says he is also a victim. The building owner says he has been unfairly singled out by the city and is considering suing Pomona for failing to enforce the city building code in a systematic and uniform matter.

“We’re trying to work with the city to solve any of their perceived concerns, but they’re being very unrealistic,” Dahms says. “Every time it seems like we’ve resolved some issue, some elements of the city backslide.”

Esquivel said he has asked his staff to research laws to find out what Dahms must do to bring the building up to par. Concerns focus on issues such as whether stairwells are properly enclosed and whether entrances and exits comply with requirements for residential use.

A 1989 Pomona ordinance permits so-called mixed-use lofts where artists can both live and work in existing commercial buildings. But The Towers is zoned for commercial use, according to the city building code.

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“It’s this gray area that needs to be clarified,” Esquivel says. “We’ve been busy trying to come up with what the issue is and to solve it for all property owners, including Mr. Dahms.”

The Towers has a long history as a Pomona landmark. Built in 1930, it originally housed the Pomona Superior Courthouse. At various times, it has also housed a law library, a bank and commercial offices. Dahm bought the building in 1993 and his problems started last October, when Pomona city staff conducted inspections of The Towers and found that the building was in violation of city code.

“We are well aware that mixed use is permitted. . . . However, there does not appear to be a mechanism to implement the use,” wrote Simon Shoo, the city’s acting building official, in an Oct. 20 letter to Dahms.

Shoo said Dahms had allowed artists to live in the building without obtaining the required plan checks, permits and occupancy certificates from the city.

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