Playing Detective on Empty Lots

Jon LeSage
THIS EMPTY SPACE on Ocean Ave. in Seal Beach is full of trees and shrubbery.  It’s located in between 1st St. and 2nd St., across the street from beachfront houses worth well over $1 million.

We’ve all seen that piece of property nearby — a vacant house or commercial property, maybe with an amount of empty, open land around it. It’s been that way for years.

Sometimes it’s a gem of a building that should be restored, but usually it should be knocked down and the whole lot refurbished. The questions do pop up... Why is it still sitting there? Doesn’t somebody want to own this land? It must be valuable. Is there a legal battle over who gets it? How would I find out?

Well, it does take a bit of detective work. I chose two pieces of property that have stood out for quite a while. So, let’s look at the details.

Lot #1

A long, narrow rectangular stretch on the northwest corner of 23rd St. and Elm St. in Long Beach, right off Long Beach Blvd. It has an alleyway on the left. It’s been serving as a nearly empty parking lot for a long time with a sign that reads, “Customer Parking Only.” As for customers, Alligator Laundry is across the alleyway on Long Beach Blvd.

Lot #2:

It’s an empty space full of trees and shrubbery on Ocean Ave. in Seal Beach, in between 1st St. and 2nd St. It’s located to the left of an old two-story house on the northeast corner of Ocean Ave. and 2nd St. There’s no visible address anywhere on the vacant lot or on the house to the right of it.

It all started out with site visits, scoping out the details and taking photos. For the Long Beach property, I noticed a real estate agency sign right by the curb on Elm St. It gave a contact person’s phone number for Strand Hill, a Christie’s International Real Estate agency.

I put in a call to Chris Corr, the Strand Hill contact, and he got back to me a few hours later. The property had been owned by Alligator Laundry and was used as a parking lot. Strand Hill put it out on the real estate market, but two possible sales deals were stopped short last year.

The first challenge had been getting it sold in a way that the city will approve and the buyer will move forward on. The first potential buyer had drawn up plans for 14 rental units on the property, but the city only okayed eight units. The buyer scrapped the project.

The second potential buyer had a personal emergency get in the way. It was looking good for a four-unit apartment building to go in, but doctors warned the buyer that he had a health crisis to attend to first. So he backed off from getting the approval and putting it on the market.

Strand Hill has the property listed at $550,000 for the 5,300 square foot lot that zoned at R4, which is the state building zone code for these types of apartment buildings.

As for a comparable lot in the area, one real estate listing estimates a selling price of $2,150,000 for a 10-unit, 6,340 sq. ft. lot apartment building at 2033 Cedar Ave. in Long Beach.

Lot #1 is also listed on the city’s Vacant Lot Registry map. All vacant lots in the City of Long Beach must be registered with the Vacant Lot Registry. The registry didn’t make recent contact with Strand Hill, Corr said.

The Vacant Lot Registry began in 2017 as a way to mitigate negative impacts associated with empty lots. Along with enforcing rules for maintenance and upkeep, the registry works on providing opportunities for residents and potential developers to “activate such lots for community-serving uses and development opportunities,” according to the city’s website.

Mysterious Empty Lot in Seal Beach

Can you imagine seeing an empty lot on Ocean Ave. that’s across the street from homes selling for millions of dollars? It’s within two minutes of being able to walk down to the jetty or beach with your surfboard. How could that be?

It did start getting a bit tricky. The Google Maps page shows it listed at two addresses – 111 and 113 Ocean Ave., Seal Beach. It also gives two addresses to the two-story building to the right of it, 115 and 117 Ocean Ave. – as if these could be duplex homes. The house to the left of the vacant lot just has one address on the map and it shows up on the building as the same address.

Doing a search on the Orange County Treasurer-Tax Collector website only produced these results: 113 OCEANO IRVINE and a parcel number for that property and information on the status of property tax payments. Changing it to 111 Ocean Ave. does nearly the same thing while searching that database – 111 OCEANO IRVINE with a parcel number. Tax assessors use parcel numbers – called APN for assessor’s parcel number – for identification and record keeping.

I called the Orange County Clerk-Recorder’s office to find out how to acquire property deed information. I was told that I would need the name of the current property owner, which I would need to acquire by calling or going to the Treasurer-Tax Collector’s office. When I did call them, I was told I would need to submit a written request by fax or in person.

So, I faxed them that request and within two hours I was sent back a response from the assessor’s office that nothing was found for 111 or 113 Ocean Ave. in Seal Beach. That meant the Clerk-Recorder’s office wouldn’t be able to help me, either.

I researched real estate agencyies that have been in business in Seal Beach for several years.

I called Baytown Realty, which has been serving the Seal Beach market for more than 40 years. Madeline, a staff member there, took my call and asked for feedback from coworkers. She recommended I use the Google Maps address and go to the County-Recorder’s office. I told her I had done so and that the two addresses in the Google Map search didn’t show up in their records.

I have a hunch that Baytown Realty, and a few local residents, know more about the story. Another interesting point – the old two-story house to the right of the empty lot is getting some painting and repair work done.

Redfin has a listing for an ocean front house at 700 Ocean Ave. with an estimated listing of $5,817,271. That’s for a three-bedroom, three bath, 1,820 sq. ft. house, that also has a “beautiful ocean-front patio.”

Another property down the street – a 1,978 sq. ft. home at 1501 Ocean Ave. in Seal Beach – sold for $1,925,000 about a year ago. Like the empty lot, it’s across the street from ocean-front properties. So, getting an ocean-front home might add a couple million to the deal.

While earlier discussing the property on Elm and 23rd in Long Beach, Corr mentioned that he’s seen a report stating that $900,000 is the average cost for a house in California. That would need about $80,000 annual income to make the house payments.

That raises the tough question of how much can be done for low-income renters and potential home buyers?

We both agreed that there are some very charming historic houses and buildings in the local area that are getting refurbished. San Pedro, Long Beach and several other cities in the Southland, are seeing real benefits from having neighborhoods restored. It does take quite a lot of hard work, available cashflow, a reasonable mortgage loan, maintenance and upgrades, to make it all work.

Jon LeSage is a resident of Long Beach and a veteran business media reporter and editor. You can reach him at jtlesage1@yahoo.com.

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