Mountain View Voice

Opinion - December 6, 2013

Taqueria fights eviction

Not that long ago, local taco and burrito lovers flocked to the old building at Rengstorff Avenue and Old Middlefield Road, where they could choose between La Costena and La Bamba taquerias, said by many to offer the best burritos in town. But now the old building that housed the restaurants and some 50 apartments will be demolished to make way for new affordable housing units and a small amount of retail space.

The transition did not come easy. As far back as 2008, the building's owner was in trouble with the city's code violation staff, routinely failing inspections and running afoul of the city attorney's office, which enforced the rules.

Owner Charles Gardyn claimed time and again that he had plans to redevelop the property, but then-City Attorney Michael Martello told the owner, "We are running short of patience because we have been hearing that for two years." Martello based his concerns on a long list of code violations, including a weak roof, illegal structures added to the rear of the building and electrical work done without permits.

Gardyn's claim that since it was built two years before the city implemented its first building code in 1948, it could skirt the rules, did not help his case with Martello, who contended that major infrastructure improvements were needed and that the old structure could not have its "useful life" extended. The landlord finally capitulated, having told the Voice, "I'm not going to fight City Hall. If that's what they want, it's not really a choice."

And that was the beginning of the end for 819 N. Rengstorff Ave., although the City Council was forced to endure much more criticism before a final plan to replace the building was worked out. Longtime apartment tenants blamed the City Council for disrupting their families' lives, and union leaders demanded the city pay the prevailing (usually union scale) wage on the project.

And even today, after ROEM Development Corp. and Eden Housing have been granted a contract to build 52 efficiency studios for extremely low income households, at least one longtime tenant, Taqueria La Bamba owners Leo and Oscar Munoz, are not going quietly. Just last week, Leo Munoz issued a press release charging that his small family-owned business is being evicted by ROEM without the company fulfilling the promises of relocation cash and the adequate funds to rebuild his restaurant in the new ground floor space when it reopens.

ROEM disputes that claim. Munoz said ROEM offered him $265,000 to relocate, which is part of the city's stipulation in its contract, as well as $300,000 to help defray the cost of tenant improvements in the new space. Munoz counters that the offer falls far short of what it will cost to relocate or to move back into a new space. He claims that ROEM backed out of a deal negotiated last month, and that revenue from the original restaurant at 2858 Old Middlefield Way are supporting is his two other La Bamba locations which are not as profitable.

In the meantime, La Costena has moved on, relocating to 235 East Middlefield Rd., near Whisman Road, while La Bamba is facing eviction this week as the developer prepares to start work on the new building. It is a sad but necessary end for a building that has a long and colorful history after more than 60 years at this location. But when a building is deemed too dangerous for its tenants to occupy, the city must step in. And while not everyone will walk away completely satisfied, at least most can leave under their own steam with relocation expense checks and the knowledge that many low-income tenants soon will be able to pay for a roof over their heads.

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