The recession is over, and University of California officials need a place to party.
Or, in the more dignified phrasing used by UC, they want a place to "accommodate essential entertainment functions" of incoming President Janet Napolitano, the former head of Homeland Security who starts work at UC on Sept. 30.
The UC regents' buildings and grounds committee voted unanimously Tuesday to recommend that the regents spend $620,000 in nonpublic funds as a first step toward renovating the grand but decaying Blake House in Kensington, a 1924 mansion that could cost $3.5 million to $6 million to fully restore.
A committee recommendation is virtually always adopted by the full board, which is meeting this week in San Francisco.
A portion of the recommended funds, $250,000, will pay for UC to study whether the building might serve as Napolitano's home or whether it would make a better conference center, study center or residence for visiting scholars. The rest, $370,000, would pay to fix the roof and take care of other immediate repairs that would take about two years to complete.
The three-bedroom, seven-bath residence (13,329 square feet) was designed by Walter Danforth Bliss, the architect who created the historic St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. Its restoration had been expected to begin in 2008 after the departure of former UC President Robert Dynes. He was the last president to live in the home, which was donated to UC in 1957. Fractures in its foundation, a leaky roof and cracked walls were among the extensive problems that led the university to instead rent a home for the next president, Mark Yudof.
At that time, UC officials estimated the cost of repairs at $8 million to $9 million. Then the recession hit, and the plans were put on hold.
A house and gardens
Since then, UC has spent $97,636 in nonpublic funds to maintain the home, which sits on 10 acres of Mediterranean gardens that are open to the public. UC Berkeley students in the Landscape and Environmental Design department help maintain the garden while studying it as part of their program.
"Blake House is integral to the garden's design," UC staff told the regents in a memo recommending approval of the preliminary funding. "It shelters the formal garden from the strong prevailing winds off the Golden Gate and is considered an essential part of the environment."
Some regents on the buildings and grounds committee suggested that the mansion be fixed up and sold.
"It's not a great location, and parking is not adequate for entertainment," said Fred Ruiz. "Why don't we put $2 million in and sell it? I know this has significant historical value and it's part of UC, but I'm trying to understand the value here."
Hadi Makarechian, chairman of the committee, suggested selling it to a developer, who "could pay for the entire renovation."
But a sale is not in Blake House's future, UC officials said after the meeting, because of an old agreement that would require the university to plow the proceeds back into the Landscape and Environmental Design department. And if the house were sold separately, it would probably have to be subdivided into apartments, which neighbors would oppose, said Nathan Brostrom, executive vice president for business operations.
Why provide housing?
Some question why a public university needs to provide any residence for its highly paid leader. Napolitano's base salary will be $570,000, and she'll receive $142,500 in moving expenses.
"It's a terrible sign and symbol to be paying Napolitano half a million a year and to renovate a mansion for her," said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog in Santa Monica, noting that UC tuition has doubled to about $13,000 since the start of the recession.
"The regents need to start thinking more about the plight of the students, and less about the entertaining and wining and dining of the people who run the university."
UC spent $12,500 a month to rent a home in Lafayette for Yudof, who leaves office this month, and has leased a 3,500-square-foot home for $9,950 a month in Oakland for Napolitano – who could choose to live in the mansion once it is restored.
'Not currently adequate'
"Blake House's main floor of large rooms is a perfect venue for certain types of university functions, but the upstairs residential floor is not currently adequate to meet the needs of the president of the system," UC's staff memo says.
UC officials say the cost of renting facilities will exceed the cost of renovating Blake House within 15 years.
They said the money to renovate and maintain the mansion comes from the $188 million Edward F. Searles Fund, set up nearly 100 years ago as a gift for UC to pay expenses the state won't cover, such as maintaining chancellors' facilities, fundraising activities, and the rent for UC's presidents.