Before the H.G. Wade Warehouse in Alviso burned down last month, it suffered through a decade of neglect and failed attempts to transform it into a usable structure.
San José Spotlight reviewed hundreds of pages of enforcement investigations and emails obtained through a public records request documenting the city’s fruitless attempts to keep the building from falling further into disrepair.
Records show that in 2011, a city inspector notified the owners of the Wade Warehouse that it had to be registered in the Vacant Building Monitoring Program—a system where property owners pay a fee and register their building as abandoned. San Jose requires all vacant or abandoned historic buildings to have an operating security alarm system at all times. If the fire marshal declares a building unsafe, owners may be required to install a fire alarm or sprinkler system.
According to the records, the city inspector noted that the warehouse needed a fire security system for protection.
But neglect and poor management continued to mark the Wade Warehouse for the next decade.
Public records show that code enforcement inspectors repeatedly warned the property owners to not let tenants live or work at the warehouse. On multiple occasions, inspectors found electrical cables located near the warehouse being used for RVs and a solar panel. Last year, they also photographed debris and trash crammed in the warehouse, which may have contributed to the conflagration that consumed it.
A fire on June 25 destroyed the Wade Warehouse—one of six historic landmark sites in the Civil War-era neighborhood of Alviso. An investigation by the San Jose Fire Department is pending. The loss is painful for residents, especially those who say San Jose has long neglected Alviso residents and their needs. Some have repeatedly asked the city to take better care of the building or force the owners to be more diligent stewards of the historic property.
“The city reneged on its responsibilities of following up—that’s just facts,” said Richard Santos, a director with the Santa Clara Valley Water District with deep ties to Alviso. “Why wasn’t somebody held accountable?”
For the past decade, a small group of individuals have been tied to the Wade Warehouse property. The site’s owner is Sandra L. Anderson, trustee, according to Cheryl Wessling, a spokesperson for the San Jose Planning Department. There are also two responsible parties who are sometimes referred to as owners in the public records: Michael Zaro, and Earl M. Pellegrini and Helen L. Pellegrini, both trustees.
Zaro told San José Spotlight that his grandfather purchased the warehouse years ago and he took over its management in 2014. He disputed the assertion that he’s neglected the warehouse, noting that he’s tried to sell it for years. But multiple buyers have walked after learning about the challenges of re-developing a historical landmark.
“We couldn’t get anything done,” Zaro said. “Everything we tried to do, every person I tried to sell it to said, ‘no, no, no.’”
He said the building has been monitored by a woman named Betty Brown who contacted the police after discovering a homeless squatter had trespassed on the warehouse lot and set at least a couple fires.
“Betty Brown went in there and there was some stuff burned,” Zaro said.
Zaro said the city has made things worse by sending him contradictory messages about what to do with the building. For example, he said that after the June fire, the fire department urged him to tear down the walls which were on the verge of collapsing. Zaro asked a friend to take down the walls with an excavator. But the city refused to approve the work because of the historic nature of the site, Zaro said.
“I love history, so I get it, but when you’re in a situation with a building like that, it’s just too much money to retrofit and do something with it,” Zaro said. “And (the city) handcuffed me from selling it.”
There is still at least one open enforcement case against the Wade Warehouse, according to emails between enforcement officials shortly after the June 25 fire. But public records show numerous attempts by San Jose’s code enforcement division to correct violations at the site, and at least three closed enforcement cases that cropped up over the past decade.
In 2013, a city inspector discovered a man using the warehouse to store auto parts that he sold on Craigslist. The inspector observed vehicles on the property being dismantled, two RVs that were apparently being lived in, as well as an outhouse. They also discovered that someone reinforced the interior of the building without a permit. In 2014, inspectors noticed what appeared to be construction equipment stored on site.
Inspectors issued a notice of violations to the owners who complied with the city’s abatement notes after several months of back and forth.
In December 2016, San Jose issued another warning notice, citing debris strewn around the lot and a resident living in an RV. The notice also ordered the owners to remove an electrical connection to a neighboring property. In 2016 and 2017, an inspector had extensive communications with one of the owners—Zaro—about removing paving stones left in the lot.
The city issued the owners a notice to re-register the Wade Warehouse as a neglected vacant building in September 2019. The city cited the unsecured entry, debris in the yard and failure to maintain the exterior.
Wessling told San José Spotlight the property was part of the vacant building program from October 2019 through June 2020. It was removed once it was actively listed for sale. Emails between officials in February 2020 show that the city intended to follow-up on possible blight violations.
Concerns over squatters
Despite the city warning the owners that people could not live on the property, there is some evidence that at least one person squatted as recently as last year. In February 2020, an inspector took photos that showed a solar panel apparently hooked to electrical wiring near the warehouse.
Potential buyers also expressed concern about the possibility of people living illegally on the property.
In 2019, representatives from Avison Young, a commercial real estate property, approached the city about purchasing the property and transforming it into a tow yard.
Diane Armstrong, vice president of Avison Young, sent an email to Juliet Arroyo, a San Jose preservation officer, with photos of the warehouse site. She expressed concern about “the homeless living situation that local police have not addressed regardless of multiple neighbor complaints.”
Photos of the warehouse’s interior appear to show a potential fire hazard. The interior is packed with cardboard boxes, wooden debris and plastic bins. A sign is visible that says “Alviso Flea Market.”
An uncertain future
The tow yard proposal fell apart last year after the city informed the potential buyers that zoning would make it difficult.
But public records show that a buyer is now trying to transform the site of the warehouse into a 31,000 square-foot sports and recreational center. A preliminary review application boasts that the project will energize the Alviso economy and incorporate the historical buildings.
The application notes that the team behind the proposal is made up of “local professionals” with backgrounds in construction, real estate, facilities management, sports management and coaching. The potential buyer is not identified in public records.
Jeffrey Eaton, an agent with E2 Architecture Inc., is listed as an agent for the developer. He did not respond to San José Spotlight’s requests for comment.
Zaro said the buyers are still interested in moving forward with the development, but he’s unsure of how the approval process will be affected by the fire.