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Historical preservationist Tom Panas is photographed at the Contra Costa Florist building on San Pablo Ave. in El Cerrito, Calif. on Monday, May 14, 2013. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)

EL CERRITO -- Tom Panas has a day job in computer software in Emeryville.

But his real passion is everything El Cerrito, especially the city's stock of historically significant buildings, which he is adamant about preserving. Panas is a presence at almost every City Council meeting, pleading for his favorite causes. These range from replacing the city's aging library or senior center or calling for establishment of a historic resources ordinance to give the city the power to protect significant properties and make it easier for owners to maintain historic homes.

The former president of the El Cerrito Historical Society can often be found in the Dorothy and Sundar Shadi Historical Room on the second floor of City Hall doing research and answering questions from the public about El Cerrito history.

Historical preservationist Tom Panas is photographed at the Contra Costa Florist building on San Pablo Ave. in El Cerrito, Calif. on Monday, May 14, 2013.
Historical preservationist Tom Panas is photographed at the Contra Costa Florist building on San Pablo Ave. in El Cerrito, Calif. on Monday, May 14, 2013. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)

"In the 1930s and '40s, there was practically nothing here, but the challenge is to retain what is left of what was here," said Panas, who has lived in the city since 1975.

There are no designated landmarks in the city, once home to one of the most historic dwellings in Contra Costa County. Local attitudes about historic preservation have changed since 1956, when the historic adobe home of Victor Castro, son of Spanish ranchero Francisco Castro, was destroyed in a fire shortly before the El Cerrito Plaza shopping center was built on the site, Panas said.

"People just said 'Get that thing out of here,' and that's what happened," he said.


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Panas says he's focused on preserving four El Cerrito landmarks. The first is the former Contra Costa Florist Shop on San Pablo Avenue just south of City Hall. The structure was originally a sales office for a quarry company, but it was converted into a florist shop in 1936 by the Mabuchi family, which sold the production from Japanese flower-growing businesses in Richmond.

The Rodini Property is photographed in El Cerrito, Calif. on Monday, May 14, 2013. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)
The Rodini Property is photographed in El Cerrito, Calif. on Monday, May 14, 2013. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)

The Mabuchis bought a house and moved it behind the shop before they were sent to an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. They resumed the business after the war, reportedly with the help of the furniture store owner next door, who protected the property while they were interned.

Panas said the building has a key element that the federal and state governments are looking for in designating a building for preservation -- a connection to major historic events. The plot on which the building sits is designated for development for low-income senior housing. The developer, Hayward-based Eden Housing, has agreed to keep the florist shop as part of the project but plans to tear down the Mabuchi home behind the shop.

The Navellier House is photographed in El Cerrito, Calif. on Monday, May 14, 2013. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)
The Navellier House is photographed in El Cerrito, Calif. on Monday, May 14, 2013. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)

"I think the rear portion is more significant than the front portion, because this is where the family lived," Panas said. "It's the last local remnant of the Japanese internment."

A second building, the Chung Mei Home, was built in 1935 to house a school and home for Chinese children. The site was recently home to the former Windrush School. It appears eligible for listing on the California Register of Historical Resources, which means that an owner could not change its defining features without filing an environmental impact report.

"An EIR is normally at least six figures (in cost), and there has to be significant public comment as part of the research for the report," Panas said.

The Chung Mei property was purchased last year by Steve and Susan Chamberlin, founders of the Chamberlin Foundation, which has invested in projects to increase educational opportunities for children from low-income families in Oakland and West Contra Costa. Chamberlin spokesman David Richey has said the couple are considering what they want to do with the facility.

"It's a huge building and has 10 times as much historical integrity than the others because of its size," Panas said. "Windrush did a remodel a few years ago, and there were some minor losses of integrity."

A third property, known as the Rodini home, is now vacant and fenced off. The home, at 1715 Elm St., was bought about 10 years ago by a developer who unsuccessfully submitted a plan to build condominiums, Panas said.

"It's three parcels with an old Queen Anne-style house," he said. "The Rodinis were old-time Italians who worked in the quarries."

The owner has come back to the city with a revised plan to move the house to a different part of the lot and is now talking with the city about how the project might more forward, Panas said.

The fourth property, at 1332 Navellier St., has a home that was built before 1900 by the pioneering Navellier family, which operated a chicken farm there.

The house and the 2-acre lot it sits on changed hands in March in a probate sale and was purchased by a family that apparently intends to live there, rather than by a developer, said Art Lehman, the listing agent on the property.

"That is a classic farmhouse and should be preserved," Panas said. "A pre-1900 property is very unusual in El Cerrito."

Mayor Pro Tem Janet Abelson said El Cerrito could incorporate the function of a historic resources ordinance as a part of an updated general plan.

However, the council is currently focused on promoting business development and retention that could add the tax base necessary to operate the city, she said.

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