Rives Mansion owner claims tenant stalled renovations, gutted interior

DOWNEY − Owners of the Rives Mansion are refuting allegations made by a former tenant last week that they were irresponsible landlords. While owner Carmen Rivera confirmed the historic Downey landmark is facing foreclosure, she also said she and her husband Oscar evicted tenant Ralph Verdugo after the Downey businessman failed to pull the proper permits and get renovations approved by her.

“I am the victim here. I haven’t done any abuses,” she said. “[Verdugo] delayed and delayed so the property would fall into foreclosure and he could buy it. We’re working with the bank now to modify our payments.”

In July 2013, Verdugo and Rivera signed a seven-year lease to convert the Rives Mansion, located at the intersection of Paramount Boulevard and Third Street, into an upscale steakhouse and wine garden. Last week, Verdugo announced he pulled out of an agreement with the Riveras five months ago after finding out the couple was nearly 60 months behind in mortgage payments.

"It's sad and depressing," said Verdugo, who claimed he spent $400,000 to restore the home's floors, walls, and windows. "I called the owners and they said it was a misunderstanding, but then they stopped returning my calls."

If the Riveras lose the property, Verdugo has the first right of refusal to purchase the home.

Rivera said she lost trust in Verdugo after he failed to seek her approval on renovation plans.

“I was supposed to get a timeline of what he was doing, but he never gave me one,” Rivera said. “I didn’t know what he was doing.”

Verdugo, however, provided the Patriot copies of plans dated Sept. 11, 2013 that were submitted to the city of Downey Building and Safety Division with both his and Rivera’s signature on them.

“She knew what we were doing,” he said. “Black and white proves everything.”

Nonetheless, Rivera said she expected the renovation of the house to wrap up in eight months and promised Verdugo only six months of free rent. According to the lease, Verdugo would be required to make monthly payments, but only after a certificate of occupancy was issued.

Real estate broker and former Downey mayor Kirk Cartozian facilitated the lease at no charge between the two parties and confirmed Verdugo never received a certificate of occupancy.

“I was not the [Rivera’s] listing broker. I had no obligation to her or Ralph…I was impartial,” Cartozian said. “But Ralph’s account is 100 percent accurate. He wanted to be a long-term tenant…he was incentivized to open as soon as possible. I don’t know how Carmen was concerned about rent when she hadn’t paid the mortgage in five years.”

Inside the Rives Mansion, the main floor dining room and kitchen are now completely gutted. An upstairs bathroom has also been stripped down to studs. Verdugo ensures his team was in the process of restoration at the time of eviction, but Rivera is calling the demolition spiteful and unnecessary.

“He maliciously destroyed it so we’d lose it and he could buy it,” said Rivera, who asked investigators to assess the damage. “He put us in jeopardy – we expect up to $350,000 in damages.”