WALNUT CREEK -- The descendants of a woman who bequeathed her estate to the city are offering to help return part of the property back to its original glory.
The 10-acre Lar Rieu Park opened to the public in 2007. The public has not used the undeveloped park much, though, and the house and gardens on the property have fallen into disrepair, according to the Lar Rieu family.
Miriam Lar Rieu granted her 10-acre parcel at 196 El Camino Corto -- including her historic 1930s home, complete with a windmill and sweeping views of Mount Diablo -- to the city nearly 30 years ago, to be used as parkland after she died. Then-Mayor Bob Schroder assured Lar Rieu in a letter that her wishes would be "assiduously adhered to."
Lar Rieu died in 2003, but the park didn't open to the public until 2007. Since then, not much else has been done.
A recent visit to the house by Lar Rieu's grandson Dana Sack, Mayor Cindy Silva and city officials revealed that the roof is failing. Vandals have left graffiti and damaged furniture inside, and some of the gardens have been destroyed. But overall, the house was still in relatively good shape, Sack said. But with a leaking roof and rooms covered in wooden panels, a wet winter could render the house unsalvageable, he said.
"It has become a haven for deer and lots of critters, so grandmother would be happy with it being a passive park," Sack said. "But the house is such a useful asset -- (the city) could make good use of the facility."
So Sack and his family have proposed spending their own money to fix up the house -- a bill estimated at around $300,000. In exchange, the city would allows Sack's niece, who is about to get married, to live there rent-free as a caretaker for the next five or more years.
"We are saying to the city, 'Look city, give it to us for awhile so we can preserve it for you,' " Sack said.
This is not the first time the city has received such an offer, said Walnut Creek Public Works Director Heather Ballenger. Proposals for people to live in the house rent-free have not gained traction because it is, after all, a public park, she said.
"It's an interesting idea and creative, because we don't have any money to fix up the house," she said. "But a single-family home isn't necessarily, in the long run, what we want up there."
That this proposal comes from the Lar Rieu family could change that, she said. The idea will be considered once the family submits a formal proposal, which is likely by next month.
In the long run, there could be many uses for the home by various groups -- a place for actors in a Lesher Center production to stay, or a residence for doctors that John Muir is trying to attract, Sack said. He also sees a potential educational aspect with a community garden where kids could participate. And there is always the option of razing the house and leaving it all as parkland, he said. Sack argues that the family's offer gives the city time to make these decisions and time is something the city is running out of with the current state the house is in, he said.
"Waiting for the city to figure out what it wants is not a viable option," Sacks said.
Neighbors of the park came to the city in April urging something be done about the vacant house. And council members seemed on board to make a long-term plan for the park.
Likely as part of the council's all-day retreat Friday, a work plan for Lar Rieu Park will be discussed, Ballenger said. She expects the future of Lar Rieu will be decided through a public process, likely take about a year, she said.
And it will definitely attract many differing opinions. At a public hearing on Lar Rieu Park years ago, some wanted a place for outdoor concerts; some nearby neighbors wanted nothing done there. The park is not ADA accessible and has no parking.
When neighbors came to the council in April asking for a Lar Rieu plan, the council agreed that something must be done because doing nothing isn't working.
"We have hoped for far too long that the answer would come, but benign neglect is not furthering the answer, " said Mayor Cindy Silva at that meeting.
Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.