A rebirth for Paso Robles' Oak Park

The clink of dinner dishes marked early evening in Paso Robles’ Oak Park neighborhood. Children played on the grass that sloped from door to door in the 1940s-era complex, while adults let the cool air in through open screens.

“I’ve lived here since I was 4 years old,” Briandi Sanchez said as she leaned against an aged wooden beam on her porch.

Now 16, Briandi added, “I don’t want to move. I want to stay in this house. This exact one.”

But the teen and her family may be among 64 families to move this fall if Oak Park — the county’s largest low-income housing neighborhood — proceeds with a plan to demolish the aging complex and build one that’s twice the size, yet strives to preserve a neighborhood feel, featuring open space and new amenities.

The Paso Robles Housing Authority hopes to get a state tax credit allocation needed to begin the roughly $75 million redevelopment project. It would be undertaken in two phases over the next three years.

The complex, built in 1941, “is a ticking time bomb,” said Housing Authority Director Armando Corella. After many renovations, it’s practically falling apart, he added, with extensive problems with plumbing, cracked ceilings, dated fixtures and exposed water heaters.

Two-phase project

Redevelopment will occur in two phases. The first group of residents will move out during reconstruction and move back into the new homes as the next phase begins.

A relocation specialist will help the 64 families find temporary homes in November.

Officials only have one phase of relocation to worry about. The first 64 units to be demolished will be replaced with 149 units. Then, the second phase of families will move into the new buildings with the first phase tenants as they are welcomed back.

The Housing Authority — the independent nonprofit agency that runs the complex and owns the land — is responsible for moving expenses.

Rent will cost more, officials said, but residents shouldn’t feel it. The Housing Authority will use federally subsidized Section 8 housing vouchers to make up the difference.

Close to schools

Residents Guadalupe and Antonio Contreras and their three sons are part of the first relocation phase. They hope to be moved near their sons’ schools, they said, and Antonio’s construction job.Families with children will be given first priority to stay close by, officials said.

The Contrerases say Oak Park is a good place for them. They like that it’s calm, Antonio said, with space for their boys to run around. It’s where they’ve lived for the past 14 years.

Like others, they’re keenly interested in returning to the neighborhood.

“We get along with our neighbors,” Guadalupe said in Spanish. “We’ll come back. They all want to stay here, too.”

The family will miss their neighbors during relocation, they said, but it’d be worth it.

“We would like to see new homes built here, and I think that would help us a lot,” Antonio said in Spanish. “We will probably live in one of the apartments near here during the time of the construction. That’s OK with us.”

In the end, the project will nearly double Oak Park’s capacity to 302 affordable homes — which city plans call for.

If the housing authority gets the tax credit allocation, the first phase of the project is scheduled to be completed in late 2011 or early 2012, officials said, while the second phase would end in mid-2013, depending on how construction goes.

If it doesn’t, the demolition will be on hold and residents won’t be moved until various other funds are secured, Corella said, including trying for the tax credit again in 2011.

The credit allocation would pay for about half of the work, he added, while the rest would come from elsewhere, such as construction loans and state and federal funds.

In the meantime, the project is moving forward through city government with all the necessary studies — including an environmental report that cites the impacts redevelopment could have on the area.

The plan was recommended for approval this month by the city’s Planning Commission, and is expected to go before the City Council on June 1.

History of repairs

Over the years, Oak Park has gone through several modernization projects, including lead and asbestos abatement in 1997. The refrigerators and boilers have also been replaced multiple times, Corella said.

The federal government has routine inspections and says Oak Park is habitable for the time being. Plans for renovation of the existing structures were evaluated in 2005 — refurbishing them at the time would have cost about $9.7 million. But the infrastructure still would have been old, and such work would not have increased the amount of affordable housing within the city.

Pipes once designed to bring a free flow of water into the homes keep maintenance workers busy. They often find pipes clogged with thick tree roots. The majority of drain pipes show years of corrosion.

“We have rust in our water,” Antonio Contreras said. The walls have mold, he added, and the heater — one of the last original appliances in the complex that all the units have — smells so bad when it is turned on that they try not to use it.

About five years ago, maintenance staff began repairing the spaces between the bathroom floor and kitchen ceiling in many of the two-story units.

About 70 years of use had rotted the wood between the floors so much that the supports gave way.

“The concrete was actually falling down in chunks,” Corella said.

Fourteen homes were affected and repaired. Corella’s office has a list of several more that need to be watched.

One two-bedroom unit in the south end of the complex became uninhabitable in 2009 because of ongoing drainage problems under its foundation.

For others, Corella said, maintenance crews do the best they can for the residents, responding to calls of clogged pipes on weekends and replacing stoves and refrigerators when they go out. Living is not substandard, he said.

‘Where we get together’

It’s the quiet nostalgia at Oak Park that residents say they love most.

The complex has overcome many of its past gang problems, Corella said, and is known for a youth soccer league that helps the young athletes build self-esteem. It also runs a recreation center, which would also get revamped in the new project.

“A lot of people say this is the ghetto or it’s for troublemakers,” resident Crystal Ontiveros said as she gestured to the small yards with shirts and pants drying on clothing lines.

“But it’s that place you can ask your neighbor for a cup of sugar.”

The 20-year-old anticipates a full makeover so others can appreciate the neighborhood, too.Once redevelopment happens, Corella said, Oak Park will serve families for decades to come.Even though Briandi Sanchez is sad at the prospect of losing the home she’s grown so accustomed to, she said she’s still excited. Others agree.

“A new change would be nice,” 21-year-old resident Maricela Vela said. “This is where we get together. All the neighbors — we’re family here.”