When former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano takes over as president of the University of California later this month, she will live in a house that the school is leasing for nearly $10,000 a month.
While the price tag is a bit lower than the cost of her predecessor's home, some university officials say it would be more cost-effective in the long run to fix up a vacant mansion that housed previous university presidents.
Staff members on Tuesday plan to ask a committee of the college system's governing board for an initial $620,000 toward the cost of renovating the three-bedroom, seven-bath Blake House.
The house has been unoccupied for the last five years, a period in which the university spent more than $100,000 a year renting houses for the president Napolitano is replacing. It will cost an estimated $3.5 million to $6 million to completely renovate the stately, but run-down abode, where the university's president is expected to entertain and hold meetings, as well as live.
Money for both the repairs and the rent for an alternative presidential residence come from a private endowment.
The preliminary investment in Blake House's future would be used on design and engineering work, roof repairs, detailed cost estimates and studies to determine if the estate would better serve the university as a conference center, rental space or something else besides the president's official residence.
"Having been up there and looked at it, I wouldn't say it was totally uninhabitable, but if you take a look at it, the part of the building that is intended to be living quarters is very outdated and definitely in need of some work,'' system spokesman Steve Montiel said. "Even if I were going to live there, I would want to do something with it.''
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The house, built in 1924 and located not far from UC Berkeley in the tiny hillside town of Kensington, was bequeathed to the university by wealthy alumni and became home to President Charles Hitch in 1968. It has been empty since 2008, the last time the system acquired a new president.
The university has leased Napolitano a 3,500-square-foot home in Oakland as she begins her new job on Sept. 30, Montiel said. At $9,950 a month, the rent is $2,250 less than the home where outgoing president Mark Yudof and his wife have spent the past three years and $3,400 less than the house they rented for two years before that.
Yudof is now among the officials arguing that it would be more cost-effective to fix up Blake House and have future presidents live and host university-related functions there. A report prepared for the Regents' Committee on Grounds and Buildings states they considered buying another house for that purpose this year, but were unable to locate one under $5 million. What's more, selling Blake House is complicated because its 10-acres of gardens were donated to the Berkeley campus to train future landscape architects.
To get the house into shape, officials are thinking about strengthening its ability to withstand earthquakes, repairing the plumbing and electrical systems, enlarging one of the first-floor kitchens to better accommodate large functions, and improving overall security by adding gates, barriers and surveillance cameras connected to the UC Berkeley police. Plans also call for adding a laundry, kitchen and upgraded bathrooms to the 4,300-square-foot private living quarters.
Although money for the project would come from the private endowment, which as of July was valued at $188 million with annual earnings estimated at $6.5 million, UC officials historically have been reluctant to spend money on routine maintenance at Blake House, much less a complete renovation.
Rita Atkinson, whose husband Richard served as UC president for eight years, recalled during an oral history interview asking the wife of outgoing president Jack Peltason in 1995 what kind of shape Blake House was in.
"There was a long pause before (she) replied, `Well, Blake House does have a few problems,''' Atkinson said.