|By Michael Howerton|
The east side of San Rafael's Brookdale Avenue is a ghost town in the making. It will soon be a street-side of vacant, boarded-up houses. But it won't stay that way for long.
The handful of remaining residents must leave the tree-lined, one-way street by Feb. 1. The bulldozers will come soon after and raze the houses to make way for a wider Highway 101, which now curves a few yards to the east of their back yards.
Signs of "No Trespassing" hang on the doors of the already empty houses, now the property of the California Department of Transportation. Black bars cover the lower windows. The lawns are dead.
In the living room of at least one of the houses still occupied, moving boxes clutter the floor around the coffee table. Other households have stopped keeping up maintenance. There is no reason for repairs.
The $117 million project will add two High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes, one in each direction, along a 4½-mile stretch of Highway 101 from Lucky Drive in Corte Madera to North San Pedro Road in San Rafael. Work is already under way on the southern section in Greenbrae. The San Rafael section is expected to begin in March or April 2003.
"What we are doing is a gap-closure project," said Brigetta Smith, spokeswoman for Caltrans. "There are HOV lanes to the north and HOV lanes to the south. In order to have a cohesive system, which is what attracts people to use the HOV lanes, we have to close the gap. You need to have the lane go all the way through in order to make the system work."
Twenty buildings - houses and apartment complexes - will be demolished along Brookdale and Lincoln avenues, in addition to one house on Myrtle Avenue.
Five other Lincoln Avenue properties will lose a portion of their land.
Brookdale Avenue, just a block long, will bear the brunt of the project, losing an entire side of the block. Caltrans now owns 12 of the houses, is in the final stages of signing an agreement to buy two others and is still negotiating on another. Because the real estate negotiations are not finished, Caltrans cannot release details of how much it is paying for land acquisition, Smith said.
For the most part, the demolition of the houses is not necessary for the expanded freeway, but it will preserve the state's railroad right of way, for the possibility a rail link between San Rafael and Sonoma County will be revived in the future.
Smith said the preservation of the railroad track on the west side of the freeway is a vital part of easing the commute congestion along the Highway 101 corridor.
The rail project, however, has been a tough sell with voters.
Some Brookdale residents say they resent being forced out of their homes for a railway dream that may never be approved. Mostly, the few remaining residents of the condemned houses are resigned to their fate, scouring the real estate pages for a new place to live.
Stephen Wilson has lived at 24-26 Brookdale since 1978. He resides in the lower apartment, while his ex-wife Rina Wilson and their two daughters live above. The brown-shingled duplex house, which Wilson said he completely renovated and rebuilt, has allowed the family to stay, if not together, at least connected despite the dissolution of the marriage 17 years ago.
"It was awkward at first," Wilson admits. "But often in divorce one parent is separated from their kids. Here we both can keep an eye on them."
The Wilsons briefly considered buying another duplex to keep the family close, but it would have been too expensive. Their daughters are now in their early 20s. The four of them are all aware, he said, that these are their last weeks living under the same roof.
"My kids were raised here," Wilson said. "When we moved in, this was a low-income neighborhood with a lot of young families. We raised our families together. I equate all these houses with people and the lives they lived here. We've had some great neighbors. I've gone through a terrible depression about it. I intended this house to be an inheritance to my kids. We don't have a lot of money to give them, but they could always have a place to stay here."
They are in the final stages of selling the house to Caltrans. The offer is lower than they would have liked, but he said he is tired of negotiating. He is searching for a new place in San Rafael, but said he will likely have to move elsewhere.
"It's strange being one of the last remaining," he said. "This is the slow death of a community. I'm going to miss it. I can't think of anywhere else I'd rather have raised my kids. I'm sad that my 2-year-old granddaughter won't be able to grow up on the block."
Some residents on the west side of Brookdale, the side that will remain, said it has been difficult to look across to the dark, doomed homes. Once demolition begins, they will be living with a construction site outside their doors.
But Rick Tayerle, 44, who has lived at 19 Brookdale Ave. for five years, said he eagerly awaits the bulldozers.
"The quality of life on the street has been diminishing," Tayerle said. "People have been evicted from homes that they grew up in. Caltrans has put all these bars over the windows of these beautiful homes. There is no water for the lawns, no maintenance. It brings down the character of the neighborhood."
The street has been in a holding pattern for too long, he said.
"Let's do what the people voted for," Tayerle said. "We give up a beautiful neighborhood, but we have a better flow of traffic. That's progress."
Earlier this year, one of the block's most vocal opponents of the impending demolition died. Architect David Coleman, who lived and worked at 34 Brookdale, appealed to then-Gov. Pete Wilson in 1997 to prevent the destruction of the neighborhood. He proposed widening the freeway over the defunct railroad tracks and giving up the railroad right of way, leaving the houses intact.
"I need a stay of execution for a death I believe is wrongful," he wrote. "The widening of Highway 101 can be accomplished without spending several million dollars destroying existing homes, reducing the value of the remaining homes in our neighborhood, and the displacement of close to 200 citizens."
Francisco Marmolejo and his family moved into the lower apartment at 18 Brookdale Ave. about two years ago. Caltrans has since bought the property, but allowed them to continue renting the apartment until Feb. 1.
"It's a nice, quiet street," he said on a recent Sunday afternoon, tending to the barbecue on his deck. "We've been very happy here."
Marmolejo said the location is perfect, five minutes from the body shop where he is the head painter. He does not yet know where they will go in February.
"We are sad," Marmolejo said. "But we have to go, we have no choice."
Jon Ritscher, 44, moved into 40 Brookdale Ave. with fiancee Susan Jaffe, 33, in April. They moved in knowing it would be temporary until the owner reached an agreement with the state, but the nearing deadline is unsettling, they said."We love our house," Ritscher said. "It's inevitable, but I'm sorry to see such a beautiful house go."
The city of San Rafael has a direct stake in Brookdale Avenue's vanishing east side and the widening of the freeway, but it had no say over the Caltrans-run project. San Rafael officials said the loss of a street side, while regrettable, will benefit the city and the rest of the county.
"It's one of those unfortunate circumstances where we have conflicting needs," said David Bernardi, director of San Rafael public works. "Obviously we want to preserve our houses. We have severe housing needs. But we also have severe congestion on the freeway."
The soon-to-be-displaced residents aren't so convinced that their sacrifice will mean much in terms of a better freeway commute.
"We've got to move just because all these people have SUVs and they have to broaden the freeway," said John Manchip. "And they say that won't even solve the congestion problems. Nothing will change."
Manchip has lived at 8 Brookdale Ave., a 1935 three-bedroom brown-shingled house, for seven years. Caltrans bought the house for a price on the low end of market value and he is looking for a new home, John said.
"There is no way we are going to find anything comparable to this place," he said. "This is a beautiful tree-lined street and now all these houses are empty with bars on the windows. It's a ghost street. That's exactly what it is."
Although some bitterness remains in Manchip's voice when he talks about the street, he is through mourning.
"Two years ago everyone knew it was finally going to happen," he said. "We had our last Halloween party, our last Fourth of July block party. This was a great little neighborhood.
"It's the saddest thing in the world."
From the Marin IJ