Danville Express

Cover Story - August 17, 2007

Everyone's asking: What's with the house on the hill?

by Natalie O'Neill

Kelly Adamic is pointing to his five-foot-long cement kitchen sink.

"Guess where that came from," he says with a sly grin.

The weathered trough-like sink looks like it's been plucked from an obscure antique shop on a side street in Florence, then shipped overseas for thousands of dollars.

But no.

"I molded it myself in the garage," says the good natured, but press-wary owner of one of Alamo's notorious "houses on the hill."

Adamic is not a developer or a construction expert, but he's built more than just his kitchen sink. The 52-year-old father of three designed and erected the 14,300-square-foot Tuscan-style mansion - complete with bright white roman columns and concrete walls - essentially by himself.

Perched high on the hillside near Stone Valley Road, the flat-roofed home is in plain view of I-680. It's in the spotlight for all to see.

Because of its prominent location and unconventional look, the home has been called unsightly, out of character, a scenic hillside blemish - you name it. Since building began four years ago, the hillside homes have attracted a flood of criticism from neighbors, passers-by and planners.

"It is a lightning rod for comment. You can't ignore it," says Roger Smith, who is on the planning board for Alamo Improvement Association.

On a sweltering August afternoon in Alamo, Adamic is talking about his dream home, the one he's poured his blood sweat and tears into.

"This is my passion. I was out there digging the ditches," he says, on a porch overlooking Alamo's rolling golden hills.

Adamic is acutely aware his dream house is closer to a nightmare for some people. But he says, the way he sees it, everybody should be allowed to build their fantasy house. And anyway, he's followed every rule.

"Why does every house have to look the same? This is about expression and personality," he says.

To many Alamo folks, the home and its neighboring house - that cascades down the northwest side of the hill - are one big, blaring symbol for why county planning isn't cutting it anymore. When it comes to planning in the unincorporated area, the county planning commission calls the shots.

"There needs to be a better set of rules," said Gibson, who serves on the San Ramon Valley Planning Commission, which is at risk of being disbanded this October.

The lot and its neighboring parcel were approved for building in the early 1990s. But according to Smith, they were OK'd in a "convoluted" way.

Back then, the previous property owner got the go-ahead for the two hillside homes by finding what was essentially a loophole in county building regulations. The owner drew unusual bowtie-shaped property boundaries to be able to fit two houses, as opposed to one, on the property. He even tried for three, but was rejected.

This has contributed to much of the community's frustration, as residents began to notice and comment that the houses are too close together to fit the character of the semi-rural area. Plus they are on a ridge, smack dab in everyone's sight.

But the land met the county's five-acre limit and developers were good to go. From that point, the hilltop builders only had to comply with a few height and width regulations to meet what Gibson calls the county's "permissive" regulations.

"It's a cookbook," he says. If you follow the numerical measurements, you can build a florescent pink cave on the hillside if that's your style.

With no town planning or city council and no required review from AIA or the San Ramon Valley Planning Commission - the houses were not given a thorough review, Smith says.

For weeks, Adamic's house was left white and partially completed - exactly what local planners hoped would not happen. Their desire was that the home would blend into the hillside, using paint and landscaping.

"What exacerbated it is you have a person who is not really a developer building pieces in slow steps and stages. It's been an eyesore, left without months of work at a time," Smith explains.

From inside his nearly-completed house on the hill, Adamic says he never expected it would take so long to build or that it would end up so large. The private, but friendly home owner says his house is his business. But he also explains he has apologized to his neighbors for the delay.

"You think you are doing the right thing - and it takes time," he says. "I appreciate people putting up with what I've done up here."

When he started grading back in 2003, he figured he could get it all done in a couple years, with the help of a small building team. But while putting up what he calls a gigantic "hollowed out Lego set," he's hit one bump in the road after another.

He's experienced several break-ins from thieves who target homes under construction. He threw his elbow out using a gunite gun. And cracked concrete walls have blown out.

"It was the dirtiest, nastiest meanest thing ever," he says, describing just one among dozens of walls he's put up.

So why put yourself through five years of tedious construction? Why not just hire someone?

"It's wanting it done right. This is just my personality. I want to know how things work," he says.

In his estimate, the home should be done by next July and in the end, he hopes the rest of Alamo will see it as something that adds to the area's character as opposed to diminishing it.

"I can see why everybody would question what it was at first, but it's gonna be gorgeous when it's done. I know it's not perceived that way now," he says.

Dong Lee, who owns the multi-level tan house next door, was not available for comment.

As you enter Adamic's Italian-inspired home, you're greeted by 20-foot-tall, 2,500-pound gates he's burned himself to give them a rustic look. If all goes as planned, he will be able to hang a 400-pound, 300-year old steel cauldron from a worn chain in the entry of the courtyard, then add floodlights and steam to give the illusion of a crackling fire.

Inside, impeccable attention to detail has been given, with some styrofoam-layered concrete and walls taking months to stain, in order to look authentically worn. Imported tiles have been brought from Italy, and several units are designed to look like they have been put up over a period of a few hundred years.

"I've built my castle, now I'm looking for my queen," he says.

The structure was entered into Cemex's national contest for greenness and sustainability and took second to the De Young Museum in San Francisco.

The 25-foot house has an 80,000-pound steel roof, a movie theater, sports court, au pair suite and a guest tower for his parents. It's built around a large rectangular courtyard that would have been used for a market place, if the structure were actually from fifth century Italy.

The idea behind using cement is that it's so sturdy, it will still be around in 500 years, he says.

"My vision is that my daughter walks through those doors and gets married," he says, standing in the courtyard, sporting a baseball cap, cargo shorts and a short gray goatee.

In the future, Adamic's plans for landscaping include strips of lavender and orange mum flowers on the hill.

"Just imagine streams of lavender radiating down the hillside," he says, adding he wants to work with AIA on his idea.

The plan is hardly what AIA planners are pushing for, considering they have declared a preference for landscape that makes the house less visible - not more.

But Adamic says he feels like no matter what he chooses; there will always be people who are unhappy with it. So he has to stay true to his vision.

"What I see will be stunning," he says.

He has already ushered hundreds of people through his house on impromptu tours. And he encourages Alamo people to take a closer look before they vent their criticisms.

At this location, on stage for commuters to see, his home will always be in the public light.

"People see a big house and it can become a target," he says. Don't get him wrong, it's not that he sees himself as a victim. It's more of an observation about human nature, he says.

Deep down, even longtime AIA planners acknowledge everyone should have the right to build the home of their dreams.

Finding the perfect place to live aligns with a general view of "the American dream." To many people, however, the line is crossed when your dream starts to negatively affect others.

The debate over whether the hillside homes cross any such lines has faded over the years. Residents of the semi-rural area, however, can only expect to see more and more controversy over development projects in the future.

As California's population grows exponentially and the amount of available land stays the same, these issues won't be disappearing anytime soon.

At this point, the way county regulations stand, Alamo residents who hope to preserve the area's semi-rural character can only cross their fingers that future planning will go easy on the area. Advisory groups only have so much say.

This idea has been the basis for many supporters of cityhood, which would likely call for a more in-depth review of development plans, especially those on scenic hillsides.

For now, Adamic wants to set the record straight about one of the houses Alamo folks love to hate. He knows his taste isn't the norm. And he knows when it comes to his castle, things haven't been perfect. But stop by and have a look up close, before deciding you hate it, he says.

"This is my legacy. If I do nothing else in my life, then at least I've built something," he says.


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