Noe Valley Voice December-January 2000

The Dust Hasn't Quite Cleared on Noe Street

By Heidi Anderson

The house at 1409 Noe St. is gone. Or rather, it is more gone than it was supposed to be.

Work began in May of this year to renovate the small peak-roofed cottage, which commands a view of Noe Valley and the Bay. Owner Jeff Heuer had obtained a permit to extend the house to the rear, add a garage, and add a one-bedroom apartment in the basement.

But he went too far. On Aug. 15, an inspector from the Building Department responded to two anonymous complaints that the house had been demolished. When he visited the site, he found that two walls, the house's façade, and the first floor had been removed. These elements of the 87-year-old house were supposed to be preserved during the renovation.

But when the dust settled, there was no there there. The cottage had disappeared.

Now three months later, the question remains: Has Noe Valley fallen victim to yet another developer's arrogance? Or was the demolition of 1409 Noe simply the result of the owner's poor judgment?

Owner Testifies at Hearing

"I have lived at 1409 Noe for two years, and I began this renovation with every intent to keep the building intact," said Heuer at an October hearing at the Department of Building Inspection.

Heuer, who earns his living in construction, described how he and his friends demolished some of the interior walls by hand in order to spare other parts of the house.

"Early on, the side walls [the ones touching neighboring houses] and façade were still intact," he testified.

But when he inspected the walls more carefully, he found extensive dry rot. He also discovered that the floor lacked sufficient reinforcement to be safe under today's building codes. In his mind, there was no point in saving a house that was fall-
ing apart. So he took out the walls and floor.

A few weeks later at the site, Heuer elaborated on his decision.

He explained that he'd made a mistake in reading the blueprints approved by the Planning Department. He interpreted the words "New or Existing," printed next to the walls in question on his plans, as meaning that it didn't matter whether the renovated building used the original walls or newly built ones.

But he also thought he had received verbal permission from the Building Department to do the work. In June, a month after the renovation began, an inspector visited the house at Heuer's request. The inspector was shown the dry rot and other structural problems.

Heuer's father was there, as was the general contractor, but not Heuer himself. According to Heuer, an informal conversation at that inspection led Heuer's father to believe that it would be okay to remove the deteriorated flooring and walls.

"If I really was trying to screw with the plans and not have the neighbors know, I would have left the façade up to try hiding the work," Heuer said. "I didn't."

In fact, the main reason he went ahead was so he could stick to the timetable he'd promised his neighbors, he said. "I could have 'sistered' in reinforcements to the floor [i.e., shored up existing materials], but it would have cost a lot more and taken a lot longer."

He'd already spent months negotiating with the neighbors over roof height, the overall design, his work hours, even where the Port-o-San would be located.

"Of course, I wanted to get this work done on time, but my neighbors did, too," Heuer said.

Upper Noe Sends a Watchdog

Three of those neighbors testified at the Oct. 23 hearing. Two spoke in support of Heuer. One was not sympathetic to Heuer's plight.

Georgia Schuttish lives half a block away on Duncan Street. She said that her proximity to 1409 Noe entitled her to official notification by mail of Heuer's renovation work. She claimed she did not receive the proper notice.

She also said she was attending on behalf of the group Upper Noe Neighbors, which has been vigilant lately about a spate of demolitions taking place in Noe Valley. They fear that each time a small Victorian bites the dust, a "monster home" may rear up in its place.

"Upper Noe Neighbors is upset about this trend," said Schuttish. "First of all, something is wrong with the code if he [Heuer] is able to leave only three walls standing and that isn't called a demolition. But I'm glad he got called in when he took them down."

The only other complaint submitted at the hearing was a letter sent to the Chief Building Inspector a week before the hearing. The writer, who neither claimed to be a neighbor nor provided legible identification, argued that Heuer pretended not to know he needed a permit to do the new work on the house.

Heuer responded that his dealings with neighbors had been in good faith and he had spent a year and half gaining his permits. He also said he planned to live in the house once it was remodeled. The last thing he wanted to do was to alienate the neighbors.

Two Neighbors Express Support

Donald Bardole owns and lives in the house next door, at 1407 Noe. He also spoke at the hearing.

"I basically support the plan," said Bardole. "My interest is that the house next to mine be earthquake-proofed and up to fire codes. Plus, I'm pleased the design of the renovated house is consistent with the neighborhood." He pointed out that the roof height--22 feet--matched his.

Bardole also said he wanted to corroborate Heuer's testimony about how carefully he worked on his plans for the house.

"No machine went into that house during the first month. I overheard conversations they had as they worked, and I knew a lot of thought went into what they were doing," Bardole said.

He said he hoped the work would be allowed to continue.

His neighbor across the street, Alan Louie of 1418 Noe, added his words of praise. "He [Heuer] consulted us many times. I told him my greatest concern was the height of the house," Louie said.

Heuer could have built his renovated home higher. (The legal limit is 40 feet.) But, after consulting with Louie, he decided not to. "For this I am grateful," Louie said.

What Happens Next

Regarding the site visit in June, Rich Rovetti, public information director for the Building Inspection Department, says that informal visits to building sites are often made by inspectors when an owner or general contractor requests it.

But Rovetti claims there is no way Heuer received verbal permission to do the disputed work.

"A revision request should have been made [by Heuer], depending on the amount or kind of work that needed to be done." It would not have been unusual, he says, for a permit to be issued. And taking the time to get it would have kept Heuer out of trouble.

Rovetti says he is not familiar with the details of what transpired at 1409 Noe, but he assumes neighbors should have been notified of the intent to remove the floor and walls.

Meanwhile, Hearing Director David O'Sullivan of the Department of Public Works was scheduled to decide on the entire matter by Nov. 20 (after the Voice went to press).

Heuer may be allowed to continue the work he has begun, or he may be ordered to rebuild the house he demolished. If he loses his case, he could also be barred from obtaining other construction permits at that site for up to five years.

Whatever O'Sullivan's decision, it will be subject to appeal.

'I'm Young and Stupid'

As he awaited the verdict, Heuer reflected upon his situation. "If anything, this all happened because I'm young and stupid."

Heuer is 32 and grew up in New Jersey. He says he moved to San Francisco a few years ago and took a dot-com job that dealt with construction. The job didn't pan out, so he began picking up traditional odd jobs. Once he decided to put down roots in San Francisco, he bought the house at 1409 Noe St. Since then, hardly a day has gone by that he hasn't thought about his home remodeling project.

"I grew up around construction all my life, but I'm new to San Francisco and sort of new to renovation. It's been a tough learning curve," he says. "It took me a year and a half to get through Planning and Zoning -- this is not the first hassle I've had [on 1409 Noe]."

He says he is deep in debt for both the mortgage and the construction loan. He has been sleeping on a friend's couch during the renovation.

But he concludes, "I'll never give up on this. I've got my whole life wrapped up in it."

For an update on 1409 Noe, contact Senior Building Inspector Andrew Greene at 558-6093.