New housing to displace longtime renters

Tom Dobrzeniecki has been in Costa Mesa for 30 years, but has recently found himself fighting to keep his home.

As part of the new development springing up in the city's Westside, 10 condos are set to replace seven 1940s bungalows on a nearly half-acre plot at 522 and 526 Bernard St. Dobrzeniecki lives in one of them.

The 60-year-old math teacher from Detroit is a renter with limited influence over the future prospects for the land, on which he occupies 660 square feet within two bedrooms and one bathroom. A Newport Beach-based developer, MDM Investment Group, acquired the property in February for about $1.3 million, according to property records.

The inconspicuous Bernard Street community — near Charle Street and just shy of bustling Harbor Boulevard — is surrounded by a wooden picket fence that's likely as old as the houses themselves. The entrance gates have no locks and insideis one of few pastoral places left that's reminiscent of Costa Mesa life before South Coast Plaza, The Triangle, freeways and traffic jams.

The mailboxes were made in Youngstown, Ohio — throwbacks to a booming post-war American steel industry that, as of late, are showing some rust.

Plenty of grassy, open spaces encircle the buildings, making the area appear well-kept and loved. From the outside, however, the bungalows' walls and roofs look largely unimproved. One building is uninhabitable.

To the tenants' joy, many of the units have their own gardens. Dobrzeniecki said the mother of the former owner used to take care of the plants, but now the tenants mostly do so themselves.

Among the greenery are a lemon tree, a plum tree and cactus. Dobrzeniecki has even made his own wine from some grape vines there. Under MDM's ownership, monthly rents generally run from $1,500 to $1,600.

"According to the plan, they're saying the purpose of the project is to create variety in housing," Dobrzeniecki said. "But try to find housing like this. This is a stand-alone bungalow. You don't have common walls with anyone. You have a garden area where you can plant sunflowers. It allows pets, and all of it is at a low price."


Three-story condos

The plans for 522 and 526 Bernard, though, are in stark contrast with what's there now.

MDM presented plans to the Planning Commission on Monday night for 10 attached condos with a modern architectural style of large glass panels, metal awnings, and metal and glass railings for the balconies and roof decks.

Each unit will be three stories high, or about 33 feet, making them the tallest structures in the vicinity. They'll have two or three bedrooms, with a total square footage ranging between 1,732 and 2,370.

The design plans call for two duplexes and two triplexes, with a T-shaped access road between them. The 0.53-acre parcel is residentially zoned for high density, which permits the 10 units on that plot.

The commissioners unanimously approved various deviations for the project, including slightly smaller setbacks and smaller garages. In March, the City Council also looked at initial plans for the development, including making sure it was in compliance with parking standards.

On Wednesday, MDM Director Bryan Avilla said construction could begin by the middle of next year. It's MDM's first development in Costa Mesa, and company officials said they see great potential there.

"We're really excited about it," Avilla said. "This is our first opportunity, and we're actively looking for new projects in the city."

The condos are expected to start selling in the mid $600,000s.

Avilla added, though, that the project is "a risky proposition for any builder to take, especially going into a neighborhood that needs to be rehabilitated. We're hoping to execute our business plans well and strategize correctly."


'Progress is coming, man'

During Monday's meeting, Dobrzeniecki presented the commissioners with a "stop the condos" petition that he created. The petition calls the buildings "out of character with the existing neighborhood."

He said he gathered 180 resident signatures. The vast majority were against the project and "didn't think it's an improvement," he said.

In response to the petition, Planning Commission Chairman Jim Fitzpatrick said, "I'm impressed, even if you used emotional arguments in order to get this many to sign." He added later that "This petition wouldn't cause me to change my vote, but it did give me pause."

Fitzpatrick then displayed for the audience some pictures he took of Charle Street. They showed abandoned couches, empty lots, "no trespassing" signs and unattractive gates. He said the condos will help transform the neighborhood, which is surrounded by apartments.

Dobrzeniecki took offense at the photos, saying they aren't characteristic of his home and the environs.

Commissioner Robert Dickson added that the town homes are "exactly the type of project that our city has been promoting for over a decade."

The commissioners expressed sympathy for Dobrzeniecki — whose 19-year-old cat, it was revealed, was killed by a dog Monday — and for the other tenants facing the loss of their homes.

"It's always hard to lose your home and change," said Commissioner Colin McCarthy.

The panel added that it was the property owner's right to institute the project, and that it will help promote more ownership housing.

Dobrzeniecki met Wednesday with MDM representatives to look at his future relocation options. He doesn't plan to appeal the commission's decision.

Doug Taylor, 53, moved into his bungalow from the Eastside about six months ago. The Costa Mesa native has a flower garden next to his home. On Wednesday, he was working out of the property's small garage, near his unit.

"Progress is coming, man. You can't fight it," he said. "I've accepted it. I know my days are numbered. I'm just trying to make the best of it."

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