Fourth story in an occasional series about Costa Mesa’s troubled motels.
In its courtyard, the Alibaba Motel has a hanging garden to match its vague theme, which includes a giant, golden-domed facade with turrets and arches.
Costa Mesa police Sgt. Vic Bakkila pointed out the grapes and dragon fruit hanging from peeling wooden slats above tarps, cracking asphalt and overgrown grass.
Bakkila has attended code-enforcement inspections at Costa Mesa motels for about two years.
Tuesday morning, he was at the Alibaba with a few inspectors, a deputy fire chief, a fellow police officer and a social worker as part of a new enforcement strategy.
They were about to visit every one of the 43 rooms in the Newport Boulevard motel overlooking the 55 Freeway.
Bakkila handed over his baton so a code enforcement officer could test a smoke detector hanging from the ceiling of one room.
It’s screech signaled that the Alibaba’s owners had just avoided a $150 fine.
“There’s so many people here,” said hotel manager Jason Pung, who was unlocking doors for inspectors. “It’s so serious.”
Most rooms were unoccupied. At each one, inspectors quickly ran down a checklist, noting holes, discolorations or a lack of proper signage.
The few occupied rooms presented more troubling situations.
Behind the pulled curtains of room 109, almost every surface was covered with discarded food and drink containers or other trash. Clothes bulged from shelves, and an extension cord ran to a hot plate near the middle of the room. Above the sink, old soda cases were flattened and hung on the wall like posters.
“When you see this kind of storage like this, this is a long-term occupancy,” said Keith Clarke, a code enforcement director.
He and his employees wore gloves and pointed flashlights through the wet, smoky air as they wrote.
Clarke made sure they noted the cockroaches in a corner near the ceiling.
At the door of his room, Allan McCue said he has lived in various places in Costa Mesa and Santa Ana since moving to the area from Irvine when he was 19.
Now 50, he still returns to his family home daily to take care of his mother.
He said how he ended up living in a motel is a long story, but “Armageddon and the forces of evil leave me no choice.”
McCue waved away the idea that the police and inspectors knocking on his door were bothersome.
“It’s ridiculous to think we could have a civilized society without them,” he said.
The Alibaba, he said, is one of the nicer places he’s stayed.
Other motels can get rowdy when groups come in just to party, he said, but “I’m accustomed to it, so it doesn’t bother me.”
Code Enforcement Officer Jon Neal agreed that the Alibaba is one of the tamer motels.
He complimented the management on the new furniture in the upstairs rooms.
“It’s looking better,” he said when Pung pointed it out.
Neal is part of a new code-enforcement program that has been built up over the last 11 months.
Costa Mesa’s Community Improvement Division has hired three enforcement officers and a part-time director.
“We’re proactive code enforcement, if you will,” Neal said.
Instead of waiting for complaints, as is traditional, a team will sweep through properties known to have chronic problems.
As at the Alibaba, the division will inspect every room, piling on as many citations as possible.
That strategy started with the Costa Mesa Motor Inn on Harbor Boulevard, where investigators say they found nearly 500 violations among 236 rooms in August.
Previously, inspectors typically visited 10% of a motel’s rooms to get a sampling of conditions, Clarke said.
Inspectors found 400 more violations at the 10 or so properties they’ve visited since the Motor Inn, according to Clarke.
And by one measure, their strategy is working.
Every one of those 900 violations had been corrected when inspectors returned for follow-up visits, Clarke said.
Costa Mesa’s motels have been under a microscope lately as council members have singled them out as problem properties that sap city resources.
Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger, who attended Tuesday’s enforcement sweep, said the Alibaba averages hundreds of police calls a year.
Mensinger and Mayor Jim Righeimer have often said Costa Mesa should take care of its own needy, but the motels draw an unseemly, criminal population into the city.
Pung said he believes the Alibaba, with rooms renting at $65 a night, attracts people who have nowhere else to go.
“Usually we receive the people without a plan,” he said.
In one room, bags or other garbage covered the bed and floor.
“These people,” the manager said, laughing at the tree branch in the room propped up against a chair. “They make a mess, but nothing’s broken so far.”
Bakkila spoke to a pair of young men sitting on a curb in the parking lot, asking if they’d been drinking.
One had come from Garden Grove — and also happened to be on federal probation.
“A cross-section of our whole county is in here,” Bakkila said.
Once Bakkila and his colleagues bought a couple a bus ticket to Arizona only to see them return to Costa Mesa. Next, the group secured them a spot in a drug-treatment program, but the two were kicked out for using, according to the sergeant.
“It’s sad, and it’s not like we’re not trying,” he said.
He couldn’t say whether the 100% inspection approach has eased the number of police calls at motels, but it has made a difference for the people staying there.
“All the smoke detectors at the Motor Inn work,” Bakkila said. “We’ve really seen the motels improve.”
Inspectors wrapped up their sweep around noon.
They’ll compile a complete report of violations in the next few weeks by using checklists and photos taken Tuesday.
Safety violations, such as missing or broken smoke detectors, will draw $150 citations and a mandate to resolve them within 10 days or risk triggering a doubled fine.
Building code violations like a fire hazard from an unsecured light fixture will receive what’s essentially a fix-it ticket to repair the infraction in 30 days or face a fine.
Code Enforcement Officer Mike Brumbaugh peeled off his black gloves and headed back toward the Alibaba’s facade, away from the occupied motel rooms that he said contain a side of Costa Mesa few residents experience.
“What it does to me is it just opens my eyes,” Brumbaugh said about the inspections. “You see a lot of reality.”