It was a quiet weekday morning in the small Victorian house on Villa Street in Mountain View. George Aviet, owner of the city's only Michelin-starred restaurant, Chez TJ, sat at one of the white-clothed tables with his head bowed and fingertips pressed against his temples.
“Every day I open my eyes, and I feel like I’m going to die. Because the stress of this restaurant, this business, is so much,” Aviet said. “I constantly think about, how am I going to retire?”
After 41 years of running a restaurant that has launched the careers of world-renowned chefs, and has received international culinary acclaim, Aviet thought he would leave the industry with the financial means to retire comfortably. But for the 67-year-old restaurateur, this likely will not be the case.
Six years ago, Aviet had plans to sell his property to developer Daniel Minkoff for $7 million. Minkoff proposed to combine the adjacent lots of Chez TJ, located at 938 Villa St., and Tied House, a microbrewery housed next door, to construct a four-story office complex with a restaurant on the ground floor.
But once the plans became public, community members opposed the development, citing historical considerations. Chez TJ, formerly known as the Wilheimer House, was built in 1894, and is a part of the city’s founding history, according to the Mountain View Historical Society. Similarly, the former Tied House building, which was built in 1931, had ties to the city’s aviation history as the Air Base Laundry.
Aviet countered that very little of the Weilheimer House is in its original form. Over the years he has made substantial modifications to it, essentially gutting the entire interior and rehabbing the exterior of the house. Only the porch posts, window frames and some foundational beams in the basement are original, he said, adding that even the stained-glass window at the front of the house was put in by him.
Aviet proposed to relocate the Wilheimer House to a new site as a historical landmark, but this did not appease the critics. In a narrow 4-3 decision in late 2017, the Mountain View City Council came out in opposition to the mixed-use development even with the relocation strategy in place, citing historic preservation as a major concern.
Aviet said he has never recovered from the disappointment and, since then, has experienced health issues related to stress, depression and heart problems. “All my investment was on this property, with the idea that hopefully one day I would sell it and make some decent money out of it to live and retire," he said.
“They took that away from me,” Aviet added.
News of the city’s plan to update its Historic Preservation Ordinance, which includes a new look at properties that qualify for the historical register, has reopened these grievances for Aviet.
When the city first asked him to put the Weilheimer house on the historical register in the 1990s, Aviet said no. Every decade since then, his answer has been the same. Aviet framed his decision to “opt out” as having the freedom to do what he wanted with his property. “I said no, I'm not going to take any benefits from it, like a tax break, and I have not. I want this property to be under my control. I own it as a civil right of this country,” he said.
But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the opt-out process, said Robert Cox, vice president of the Mountain View Historical Association and a steering committee member of Livable Mountain View, an organization that supported the preservation of the Weilheimer House. Opting out of the register does not mean a person has a stronger hold on their property rights; it just means they do not intend to seek financial assistance for maintaining the property’s historical character, he said.
While Aviet declined to add the property to the city’s register, in practical terms, it has not made a difference to the house’s historical status. In 2019, Livable Mountain View nominated the Weilheimer House and Air Base Laundry to the California Register of Historical Resources. The commission determined both properties were eligible.
“The key consideration is whether you qualify for the register, not whether you're on it,” Cox said, adding that once a property is considered eligible for the California Register, it is eligible for the National Register too.
For his part, Aviet is not entirely aware of which register the Weilheimer house is on, preferring not to know the details because it is too upsetting, he said. But he does know that the historical designation has severely hamstrung his prospects of selling to a developer that would enable him to retire with financial security.
The most he likely can sell the house for is $3 million now, Aviet said. “After paying all the bills, after paying the taxes and the mortgage that we have, not much is going to be left,” he said, adding that he also can’t afford to live elsewhere, as he currently resides on the property in a backyard cottage.
But the stress of the job, of maintaining a unique dining experience, is becoming too much for him, too. “It’s something I go through everyday feeling like, ‘Oh my God, they put me in a trap,’” Aviet said, referring to the city of Mountain View.