September 4, 2010

Prescott Estates Revisited: A complex transformation

Ten years ago, there was no disputing which was the worst neighborhood in Modesto. It was Prescott Estates — a complex of 312 condo units plagued by drugs, gangs, fires, trash piles, rodent infestations, leaking roofs and worse. What's changed?

Ten years ago, there was no disputing which was the worst neighborhood in Modesto.

It was Prescott Estates -- a complex of 312 condo units plagued by drugs, gangs, fires, trash piles, rodent infestations, leaking roofs and worse.

The conditions were so bad that police officers routinely called for backup before even driving into the neighborhood. Building inspectors needed police escorts, and pizza parlors wouldn't deliver there.

A teacher at a nearby school remembers that children from Prescott Estates often struggled in class -- because they'd been awake through the night due to gunshots.

Over a matter of months, after pleas from residents of the complex and nearby houses and a mandate from a court-ordered receiver, the city took the unprecedented action of condemning the entire place.

Today, Whispering Woods, as the complex now is called, still has 78 four-plexes, each divided into four two-bedroom, one-bath units.

But almost everything else is different, from the carports that have become enclosed garages to the attractive community pool. Most striking are the green lawns and absence of graffiti.

In short, it's "Extreme Makeover" on a massive scale.

The transformation is summed up by Richard Huber, who was appointed by the courts to deal with the slum's many problems.

"When I used to go in there, it was usually with a police officer with me," Huber recalled.

How bad was it? Huber didn't even take his Rottweilers with him because there were so many needles on the ground.

"Today," Huber said, "I would put my mother in there."

The turnaround of Prescott Estates is worth recognizing -- and celebrating. It offers hope to neighborhoods with rundown and/or abandoned houses, and it offers lessons for the for the community as a whole.

Factors in the decline

Prescott Estates represented an innovative architectural design, intended to provide an opportunity for people of modest incomes to be able to afford to buy a home.

But instead of owning just the air space inside and having the homeowner organization or another group responsible for the structure and outside areas -- as is typical with most condominiums -- the buyers of these condos were also responsible for one quarter of their building.

And that caused problems.

If a fire or plumbing leak ouccurred in one unit, it often damaged one or more adjoining units, displacing several families.

And if one owner didn't or wouldn't repair his unit, the adjoining units deteriorated, sometimes to the point of being uninhabitable.

Fortunately, these types of condo developments are no longer allowed.

But several of the other problems that plagued Prescott Estates are still common elsewhere today:

Landlords only interested in cash flow, not in reinvesting money to maintain their property.

Weak oversight by the homeowners association and/or professional management firm.

People buying units they could not afford.

As early as 1975, there were abandoned units and an unsuccessful effort to turn Prescott Estates around. By the 1980s, it was peppered with crime problems. And by the late 1990s, it appeared beyond repair.

Huber remembers driving through adjoining subdivisions. They were pleasant. He thought Prescott Estates should be saved, not razed.

Factors in the turnaround

By 2000, Prescott Estates was in such dismal shape that small changes were meaningless. The court gave Huber sweeping authority to take action. As he and others involved at the time reflect, there were several key components in turning Prescott Estates around:

No new laws were needed; cleaning up Prescott Estates required strict enforcement of existing city and state ordinances.

Teamwork was probably the single most important element and there were a lot of different players on the team. Many city departments were involved, from building inspection to police to fire to the city attorney and city manager offices. Some residents of Prescott Estates pushed persuasively for improvements. Likewise, residents of nearby houses demanded action.

"Everybody did their part," says Rick Dalton, the retired city building inspector who spent almost four years on the complex.

In the summer of 1990, the city authorized more than $100,000 in police overtime specifically for patrolling Prescott Estates. All told, the cost in real dollars and staff time would have added up to hundreds of thousands. But at that time the city already was spending massive amounts responding to fires and crime calls. There were few if any complaints that the money should have been spent elsewhere. The situation was simply that bad.

The teamwork extended to the private sector. Modesto businessman Pete Bakker was an early advocate of saving Prescott Estates, and he put his money where his mouth was. The RPM Company of Lodi eventually assumed the lead in refurbishing every single unit, a process that took years.

Some things were addressed quickly, such as putting gates on Chrysler and Powell drives, which effectively created only one entrance and exit for Prescott Estates -- from Chrysler onto Prescott Road.

Closing down the neighborhood took months. For all the criminal elements in the complex, there also were many families that simply needed an inexpensive place to live.

Ramifications of Prescott Estates extended well beyond the complex. The departure of so many families suddenly reduced the enrollment at Muncy School and added to a bad reputation already often associated with low-cost housing.

The area today

Melissa Peters is the community director at Whispering Woods, for FPI Management Inc., which manages 240 of the 312 units. Three people work in the office, which is open seven days a week, and there are two full-time maintenance people. A private security firm patrols the complex. There was nothing like that back in the days of Prescott Estates.

The management firm screens tenants closely, requiring an income three times the monthly rent, which ranges from $725 to $790 per month. No more than five people can live in any unit.

Peters' goal is not just to keep the apartments rented but to keep the tenants satisfied. If a pipe leaks, it is fixed. Garbage cans have to be stored behind privacy fences; parties and drugs are not allowed. Vehicles have to be in working order.

Whispering Woods doesn't have the amenities of some newer complexes, such as a community gym or a washer- dryer in each apartment, but Peters says the complex is about 93 percent occupied.

The appeal, it seems, includes affordable rents and a peaceful, well-maintained environment. Barbecue pits and concrete picnic tables are placed between every two units, and the landscape upkeep is striking.

Lessons for today

Modesto has troubled streets and neighborhoods, but nothing quite so concentrated as what existed in Prescott Estates.

So what useful lessons can be learned from this turnaround?

We asked a number of people involved then and now and found some common themes in their responses:

Never let an area deteriorate to where it is sucking up so much time of police and fire and other government programs. Maintain strict code enforcement, even though it's not necessarily pleasant or popular.

Use Neighborhood Watch, stringent landlord-tenant training and other programs to involve the residents.

And encourage -- and commend -- private individuals and companies that are willing to put time and effort into restoring housing and not just going elsewhere.

Patriot Roberts helped form the Neighborhood Watch group launched in the 1980s by nearby residents furious about the conditions in Prescott Estates.

Today he says he's proud to be a neighbor of Whispering Woods, and credits the turnaround to two key elements -- cooperation and perseverance.

The Bee invited several people involved in the turnaround to describe what was involved and lessons. Their written

comments are available at www.modbee.com/opinion.

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