Belli Building Rental Units To Hit Market In July

After a long, complex and often contentious history, the famous Belli Building at 722 Montgomery St. in Jackson Square is finally going to see new occupants.

The building has been listed on the San Francisco Planning Department's list of dedicated landmarks since 1969, along with the adjacent Genella Building at 728 Montgomery St. But the Belli building was red-tagged after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 and both addresses fell into disrepair and were boarded up. Neighbors and local merchants say construction has started and stopped on a residential project that included both buildings for years, but they've been seeing more vigorous construction work lately, and have wondered what's going on.

"We inherited the building that was partially constructed and had been boarded up for a long, long time," said Ray Fong Tong, president of Pacific General Construction, which is working on both buildings as one project. He said it will include two ground-floor storefronts and 12 market-rate rental units on the second and third floors.

He expects the apartments to be ready by July, and said his company will handle inquiries and rentals for the real estate investors who own it, but he can't quote prices yet. Email info {at} pacgencon {dot} com if you're looking for a new home in the building.

"There’s nothing extravagant about them," Tong said, adding that the units have basic finishes, GE appliances and no parking. They'll be a combination of studio, one- and two-bedroom units.  Some units have street frontage; other face Hotaling Place in back. Size varies from less than 600 to roughly 1,200 square feet, Tong said, and all apartments will have large storage units in the basement. The project doesn't include any affordable housing, but there are adaptable units for the disabled, he said.

Despite landmark status, Tong said it's a "brand-new building, noting that there's "nothing historical about it, because when the building was condemned after the earthquake, the only thing left intact was the front facade." His company has been working on it for about two years, but the saga dates back decades. 

Belli building, undated. Photo: San Francisco Library Photo Archive.

San Francisco property records date the building from 1900, though other reports say it actually went up during the Gold Rush in 1851. Throughout the 1900s, it served as the offices of noted attorney Melvin Belli, who died in 1996. His clients were some of the biggest names of the 20th century: Muhammad Ali, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Chuck Berry,  the Rolling Stones, Mae West and even Jack Ruby, who shot Lee Harvey Oswald for assassinating President John F. Kennedy. Belli was known as the "King of Torts," according to his Wikipedia entry.

Belli was innovative and flamboyant, shooting off a gunpowder-filled cannon every time he won a case. John Velasquez, who's owned a hair salon nearby at 440 Jackson St. since 1983 and been in business since 1970, said he heard it many times.

Melvin Belli, 1952. Photo: San Francisco Library Photo Archive.

After Belli died, his widow Nancy Ho Belli inherited the buildings. Members of the Jackson Square Historic District Association accused her of letting the building fall into disrepair "so she wouldn't have to spend money restoring them and could just start over," according to a 2004 SFGate article. Ironically, Ho Belli was a former city Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board member.

The article also says "In 2001, when squatters were commonly spotted inside, the city sued Ho-Belli for creating a public nuisance and ignoring the historic building's needs. She and the city reached a settlement in 2002 that set a time-line for restoration." The project started and stopped, but nothing got finished. Nancy Ho Belli died Dec. 20th, 2014, and won't see the final results, but neighbors are pleased to hear the building will finally no longer be a blight on the historic area.

"It was an eyesore for so long," Velasquez said. "It's nice to see it fixed up."

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