The rats of Telegraph Avenue

One of the most graphic moments at Berkeleyside’s inaugural Local Business Forum on Monday night was when Marc Weinstein, the co-founder 20 years ago of Amoeba Music, stood up and described a scene he encounters regularly on the vacant lot near his store on the corner of Telegraph and Haste.

“I don’t want to turn people off any more from coming down to Telegraph because it’s such a wonderful place,” he said. “But there’s millions of rats in this one lot — rats — and there’s homeless people all around that lot right now feeding the rats all this thrown-away pizza out of the garbage cans… There are no plans to do anything with that lot. That empty lot has been there for 20-plus years. It’s just blight on the street.”

Berkeleyside set out, with some trepidation, to investigate — and indeed we found rats, perhaps not millions, but certainly dozens, feeding off what looked like bird food. The many passers-by, going to dinner or on their way home at 6.30 in the evening, barely seemed to notice the vermin in their midst.

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  • Berkeley Resident

    The proposal for a building with pagodas was a put-on. It is obviously not economically feasible, because it uses so little of the allowed building envelope. Sarachan himself admits this in the article in the Daily Cal:

    “The Telegraph Avenue entrepreneur acknowledges that the full implementation of his plans could be expensive, especially when he promises to erect “the greenest building ever in Berkeley.” “It’s going to cost way too much, and I’m looking for co-investors who want to lose a lot of money for sure,” he quips. “So far I haven’t found any.”

    It would be quite feasible to build a conventional building there, with a few stories of housing above commercial space – if he actually wanted to develop the lot.

    When Sarachan leased the former Cody’s building, he said that he wanted to operate a used book store there. Does anyone believe that used book store will ever open?

    He leased both this vacant lot and the Cody’s building at the time when other businesses were about to go in and develop them, and he has left them both vacant. That tells me that he bought them precisely because he wanted to leave them vacant – probably to spite Amoeba, which is operated by his former employees.

    Why isn’t the city doing something about this?

  • Dan Bert

    The city should purchase the property and put in a combination police station annex and community center.

  • Tim C

    boy, has this story digressed…whatever…and by the way, has anyone seen that guy with the flute…the “something ” piper, I think…wore a funny hat..

  • Name Withheld

    Is it just me or does Ephemerol*29′s post seem a hell of a lot like SPAM advertising?

    __________________
    marc weinstein says:
    “The BIGGER question for the community is this: How could the city so thoroughly neglect Telegraph Avenue, once, and possibly still, the most famous strip in the East Bay, such that NOBODY, except the most hardy residents, are even willing to go there?”

    A big question indeed, Marc!
    The only people I know who ever want to go to Telegraph are friends from out of town. Usually friends from out of state, who’ve heard about the place and don’t know that it’s gone straight to hell in the last decade or so.

    The only times I ever venture to Telegraph are when I’m taking an out of town guest. Outside of that I haven’t been to that part of town in three or four years.

  • Berkeley Resident

    “Is it just me or does Ephemerol*29′s post seem a hell of a lot like SPAM advertising?”

    Having looked at a number of Ephemerol29′s posts over the past couple of weeks, I think he not a SPAM advertiser – just a person with a very bleak and pessimistic view of the world who looks for evidence to justify that bleak view.

    “How could the city so thoroughly neglect Telegraph Avenue, once, and possibly still, the most famous strip in the East Bay, such that NOBODY, except the most hardy residents, are even willing to go there?”

    I go there several times each week. In my opinion, the only things that have made Telegraph worse are the vacant properties – courtesy of Ken Sarachan. Without those problems, the street would be its old self, as it has been since the 1970s or so – not exactly a perfectly tended suburban shopping mall but an interesting place to go.

  • Dan Gerous

    Mostly I see the rats feeding on the castaway albums left on the sidewalk by people that do not want to lug home the records they tried to sell a Amoeba.
    After gorging on slightly scratched Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers and FogHat albums, these rats become vicious and attack the discarded foster care youth we abandon to the streets.
    No self respecting rat would eat that cardboard that Blondie’s and Fat Slice calls pizza.
    Not that the homeless disabled people and orphans would let them have it in the first place.
    Thank God our Governor is taking care of a problem our City has ignored for too long. His cuts to In Home Care, Medi-cal and Calworks will have these folks eating the bird seed that the rats seem to love so much and starve them into moving over to the North Side of town.

  • Dan Gerous

    Mostly I see the rats feeding on the castaway albums left on the sidewalk by people that do not want to lug home the records they tried to sell at Amoeba.
    After gorging on slightly scratched Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers and FogHat albums, these rats become vicious and attack the discarded foster care youth we abandon to the streets.
    No self respecting rat would eat that cardboard that Blondie’s and Fat Slice calls pizza.
    Not that the homeless disabled people and orphans would let them have it in the first place.
    Thank God our Governor is taking care of a problem our City has ignored for too long. His cuts to In Home Care, Medi-cal and Calworks will have these folks eating the bird seed that the rats seem to love so much and starve them into moving over to the North Side of town.

  • John Seal

    I am not sure I see the connection between moneybags Ken Sarachan’s vacant lot and penniless (by choice or otherwise) ‘gutter punks’. Berkeley has had street kids since I arrived here in 1981 (at the time I was a ‘punk rock kid’ myself), and I suspect there might have been a few before then (just a guess here). At the time there was a residential hotel where the vacant lot now sits, and the hotel didn’t burn down until 1989. So let’s not blame the lot for the crusties and the dogs-on-string brigade. (And precisely what any of this has to do with child-rearing methods is also beyond me.)

    Here’s the bottom line: Part the First, Ken Sarachan owns a vacant lot and uses it to thumb his nose at his major competitor. Part the Second, the lot is plagued by rats who are fed by the same person who, apparently, litters Willard Middle School’s baseball diamond with birdseed (which explains the flocks of pigeons that would occasionally interrupt my son’s little league games). The city has tried to make deals with Sarachan to encourage development and alleviate his ‘debt’. Nothing has happened.

    So what’s left? How about a daily picket line at Rasputin’s? Perhaps that might get Mr. Sarachan’s attention. Even one or two people with informational fliers might make a difference. Nothing gets the attention of a robber baron faster than a threat to his bottom line.

    And perhaps someone should intervene with Mr. Birdseed and politely ask him to make his deposits elsewhere. Unless, of course, Mr. Birdseed turns out to be Ken Sarachan. Then you don’t have to be polite.

  • Bruce Love

    Some of the news reports from the past make it sound like Mr. Sarachan is speculating on the corner lot on the gamble eventually the house behind it will be given up (perhaps moved, as it is a landmark structure) by the University, and that other lot become available. Development on the two lots combined would (one assumes) justify Sarachan’s purchase price, plus any purchased debt payed back to the city, plus taxes over the years. Plus, even if that specific deal can’t ever work out, Sarachan apparently has something lots of people want, in that corner lot.

    That does create a conflict of interest, I guess. Without the fence and with some wholesome community use, or even with full development of the tiny lot, the University would have less reason to give up the adjacent lot. Nobody would want to take over that corner. Sarachan’s investment would be worth less.

    So, it sounds from the news reports like Sarachan is playing smart hardball to get both lots or at least to get people to “play ball”.

    My understanding of property law and legal precedent is that City can just let it go, or can try to broker a deal with the University, or …..

    Eminent domain! (I don’t think this is actually realistic, but it would arguably be possible.)

    Of course, an exercise of eminent domain would not be guaranteed to succeed, would no doubt tie the City up in court for years and years, would have enormous transaction costs, and so forth.

    Meanwhile, trying to swarm Sarachan with lots of small attacks (like over rats) gives him incentive to make solutions people might like even less. A kind of “be careful what you wish for” situation “because you just might get it”.

    Anyway, I think Telegraph is kind of dingy these days because the economy sucks and because the City has made a lot of dumb development choices over the past few decades. I would guess Cody’s failed because of Amazon and because they over-reached by expanding to San Francisco and Fourth Street when they should have hunkered down. I think if the businesses were thriving, there would be enough activity and loose money around to discourage scruffy folks from the worst excesses.

    It’s possible (common even!) to have civic gridlock where nobody in particular is to blame. In Berkeley, it looks like, that’s just a time when everyone blames everyone.

  • Berkeley Resident

    “Sarachan is playing smart hardball”

    Then why did he buy the lease on Cody’s and leave the building empty? That is not smart hardball; it is a pure waste of his money.

    Yes, Cody’s did go out of business because of amazon and because of other factors that are driving bookstores out of business. But another business was ready to sign a lease on that space, and just before the lease was signed, Sarachan swooped in and offered more money for the lease.

    Clearly, he did it because he wants Cody’s to remain vacant, just as he bought the vacant lot because he wants it to remain vacant. In fact, there actually was a plan years ago to combine that lot with the one next to it, moving the landmark building, so they could both be developed together, and Sarachan did not go along with it; it is nonsense to say that Sarachan is “holding out” for that plan, when he actually has already rejected it.

    He wants those properties to remain vacant to spite his former employees from Amoeba, and he is rich enough to be able to afford wasting his money on this grudge. For background about Sarachan’s grudge against Amoeba, read a little booklet with an odd name, “The Loneliness of the Electric Menorah” by Aaron Cometbus, which is a history of the book and music stores on Telegraph Ave. You can buy it at Moe’s, and it is a very interesting read for anyone who has hung around Telegraph.

    “Anyway, I think Telegraph is kind of dingy these days because the economy sucks and because the City has made a lot of dumb development choices over the past few decades.”

    What “dumb development choice” has the city made that has impacted these four blocks of Telegraph? I think you are just blowing smoke.

  • Bruce Love

    @Berkeley Resident: “Then why did he buy the lease on Cody’s and leave the building empty? That is not smart hardball; it is a pure waste of his money.”

    On what time frame is it a pure waste of his money? Are you sure it isn’t a profitable investment on a different time scale? Do you think that the purchase will never, say, outperform popular stock market indexes? All I can tell from the press reports is that he nabbed a distressed commercial real estate property at a time when the commercial real estate bubble was beginning to show itself. He might well have gotten a very good deal if he can afford to buy and hold long enough, any renting out that suits him being nothing but icing on that cake. Suppose he wants to sell it in 2011. Will he come out ahead? My guess is certainly no worse than yours and I guess yes. But I’d also guess he comes out further ahead if he holds it longer.

    You said: “Clearly, he did it because he wants Cody’s to remain vacant, just as he bought the vacant lot because he wants it to remain vacant.”

    Why do you say “Clearly”?

    You know, go offer him a billion dollars for Cody’s, say, and see if he takes it. Think he might? Ok, a billion is probably ridiculous, sure, but at least now we are just negotiating price. How about half a billion?

    “What “dumb development choice” has the city made that has impacted these four blocks of Telegraph? I think you are just blowing smoke.”

    There is stuff along the the Telegraph corridor south of those four blocks and along parallel parts of Shattuck that I think are badly under-developed and meanwhile the core of downtown is badly overdeveloped. As near as I can piece together, at least we dodged a needless hotel and major new museum construction downtown. The four blocks along Telegraph, I am thinking, also made unrealistic assumptions about what students and academics would want.

    The Zine article you pointed me out sounds interesting but it also doesn’t sound like it really looks at things from an investors perspective. All the facts I’ve heard about the guy’s actual handling of the properties make perfect sense from a pure financial perspective. The narrative about him doing all of this out of spite seems pretty sketchy. Don’t get me wrong. I can believe that socially there is real dislike all around there. I’ve read the “bad boss” reports. Whatever. But the real estate investments make sense on much simpler, much less conspiratorial terms.

  • Name Withheld

    “Why do you say “Clearly”?”

    In terms of the empty lot, it’s because he’s left it empty for two decades.

    It’s nice that you’re giving him the benefit of the doubt, but you’re doing it to the point of absurdity. When you have to do logical gymnastics to defend someone’s behavior, it’s a good clue that the behavior in question is indefensible.

  • Berkeley Resident

    He just leased Cody’s. He did not buy the building.

    He bought the vacant lot, and that might turn out to be good investment in the long term – in the style of a slumlord who buys a property, lets it deteriorate, harms the city and the neighborhood, and then resells at a profit.

    But he doesn’t own Cody’s. He is just leasing the building, paying rent on it, and leaving it vacant.

    Bruce Love, I must say that you do not seem to know the most basic facts about this issue. When you wrote your previous post, you clearly did not know:

    – that there was another business ready to open in the Cody’s building and that Sarachan swooped in at the last minute and offered more for the lease.

    – that there had already been a proposal to combine the vacant lot with the lot next to it, and Sarachan would not go along with it.

    Now that I have told you these facts, you are inventing new, ad hoc arguments, though you have no more knowledge of the issue than you did last time around.

    You actually admit that you are talking about the zine without having read it. In fact, it doesn’t take an investor’s perspective, but it could tell you a lot about Sarachan’s personality and motives – as you would know if you would take the time to read it.

    I think you should learn something about the issues before you pontificate about them.

  • Bruce Love

    @Berkeley Resident, Ok then. The Daily Cal tells a somewhat different story about all of this (about plans for the Cody’s space and about how far the development deal for the corner really got).

    Yes, I guess I was wrong about his owning the Cody’s building. Supposing that he’s leasing, why isn’t everyone mad at the owner of the building?

    Anyway, it’s very obvious from Berkeleyside that the fastest way to fix the whole situation would be to have Kapor buy the corner lot and propose some development. City Hall would probably smoke, catch fire, and explode like computers asked impossible questions in old science fiction movies.

  • Name Withheld

    @ Bruce – The owner of the building is doing his job and leasing his space out to a tenant. He leased his space to the highest bidder, which is about all he can do in a free market. They are mad at Sarachan because he purposefully out-bid a tenant who was going to actually use the building so that he could leave it vacant in order to spite the owners of Amoeba Records.

    Leasing a building and keeping it empty out of spite is ridiculous. He’s just pissing money away on a grudge, and the city is worse off for it.

  • Berkeley Resident

    “Anyway, it’s very obvious from Berkeleyside that the fastest way to fix the whole situation would be to have Kapor buy the corner lot and propose some development.”

    The fastest way to fix the situation would be to have any normal person buy the lot and develop it – but Sarachan is not selling.

  • Fact Checker

    Just to be factual, Sarachan does not lease the corner property with the rats, nor did he buy the lease for Cody’s on location. In both cases, he purchased the property outright just before they closed with other buyers who had legitimate businesses and who were going to occupy and develop the properties with ongoing, legitimate, desirable businesses. In the Cody’s case, he offered cash outright. The lot has been empty for over 20 years. The vacancies of both of these locations have cost Berkeley and the local community millions of dollars in business and have created much of the problems of lower Telegraph. Motivations are hard to read but the resulting blight is easy to see, and it is the result of Sarachan’s monopoly antics.

  • Tim C

    Dan Gerous says:
    Mostly I see the rats feeding on the castaway albums left on the sidewalk by people that do not want to lug home the records they tried to sell a Amoeba.
    After gorging on slightly scratched Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers and FogHat albums, these rats become vicious and attack the discarded foster care youth we abandon to the streets.
    No self respecting rat would eat that cardboard that Blondie’s and Fat Slice calls pizza.
    Not that the homeless disabled people and orphans would let them have it in the first place.

    Humorous writing…Thanks Dan-gerous

  • Phil Affel

    For whatever it’s worth- Mr. Sarachan DOES OWN the Cody’s Building, he paid 1.9 million cash for it and thereby blocked out a fellow named Jeff Something who owns Brainwash in S.F.–> his plan for the space involved a GREEN laundramat, a CAFE, with LIVE MUSIC, etc . . a larger version of the one he has run in San Fran for the last 25 years . . .

  • Daniel M.

    What a shame. I used to visit “Brainwash” frequently when I lived in San Francisco. It would have been a perfect fit for Telegraph Avenue.

  • Bruce Love

    Did Brainwash have all lined up any variances it would need to use that space for food service, alcohol service, late night operations, and live performances, nevermind whatever particular regs might apply to a laundry? Any chance of objections from the residential neighbors? How does their plan compare with Sacharan’s stated wish for a “beer and book” place that he says is thwarted by local regulations? Does the complete absence of venue-specific parking matter here?

    In other words, how real was any supposed deal to open a Berkeley Brainwash?

  • lifelongberkeleyan

    Compared with the open sewer we call People’s Park, Mr. Sarachan’s lot is a green space and petting zoo.

  • Rabbi Kevin Hale

    At the risk of making light of a very very serious matter: It was all my fault

    I used to be the Rat Man who, following the Rat Lady, made and sold Cosmicrats, those rubber-band powered yoyo rats on the Ave, and usually within a hundred feet of Telegraph and Haste. After ten years I finally stopped making rats let my street vendor’s license lapse just about 20 years ago, and I am so sorry that is when the rats must have migrated to the vacant lot.

  • Mathew Parker

    Hello, bums at Vector control! Where are youuuuuu

  • Juan Valdez

    Socialism…Hope and Change…LOL! Berkeley deserves itself. What a sewer.

  • brappleflap

    @everyone: you’re so funny when you’re serious…
    So the decline of Telegraph is because there are 2 (3:wicked/galaxi) vacant commercial spaces? Cody’s closed because of one empty lot?
    Can we pay our respects to: Fabuloso, The Gap (?!), Mrs. Field’s, Milk+Cereal=Anytime, Ryno’s, whatever million convenience stores >Blakes, Fat Slice< (also vacant=4), Beard Papa, whatever that hoochie underwear store was, Greg's Pizza, former Mario's La Fiesta (still vacant=5), Ritzphoto, that Hello Kitty store, Blockbuster (!), that girls' clothing store that used to be Blockbuster, La Val's, Tower Records, Buffet place that was in ex-Tower for ~3 weeks, maybe there was a Karaoke place around there too, the hip coffee place that is now some sort of bubble-tea place below Cafe Durant, Satay House (serious tears), Funky Riddums, every business (awesome or otherwise) next to Bongo on Haste. Which brings up the unfortunate "below the 4", which list would take more than I am willing to type.

    Conclusion:
    Decline of Telegraph is caused by:
    1) A single nefarious entity (K.S.) either: with egotistical vendetta-motivated world-dominating motives or; clairvoyantly shrewd and ruthless businessman.
    2) A myriad of socio-economic factors that no laypersons (bloggers) could possibly understand.
    Apply Occam's Razor:…
    (allowing you time to think)
    Q.E.D.

  • marc weinstein

    TWELVE DAYS since this report ran . . .AS OF TODAY, NOT ONE CITY OFFICIAL or staff person has shown up OR called to respond to this situation. After many letters and calls and a degree of public awareness & input, NOT A THING HAS BEEN DONE ABOUT THIS…!!!!!!!!!!!
    Is this some sort of BAD JOKE or what ???

  • Name Withheld

    “So the decline of Telegraph is because there are 2 (3:wicked/galaxi) vacant commercial spaces? Cody’s closed because of one empty lot?” – Brabblefart

    So far you’re the only one who’s made that assertion, so if you think it’s stupid the only person you’re calling out is yourself.

    Read the article. We’re talking SPECIFICALLY about the lot that Ken Sarachan has left vacant for TWO DECADES and that is infested with rats, and the way that Ken Sarachan bought out the former Cody’s location and is also leaving *it* vacant so that he can drive down the quality and attractiveness of THAT SPECIFIC INTERSECTION because he has a grudge against the owners of Amoeba Records because he owns a competing business.

    Extrapolating people’s discussions about A SPECIFIC CORNER to the entirety of telegraph is asinine.

  • marc weinstein

    not sure who “name withheld” is referring to . . . don’t know what they are talking about- the many facets of the decline of Telegraph, as a commercial corridor, anyway, are about community, the City Government, the university, the overall economy, entities like Amazon.com, the “big box” retailers, lack of will, lack of funds, the sheer number of NIMBY’s in Berkeley, and, yes, meanwhile, we’ve been the ONLY open business on that corner for YEARS !!!!

  • Daniel M.

    I don’t visit Telegraph because there are too many bums & gutter punks asking for change, too many creepy street vendors, and not enough businesses that offer services I need. If they got rid of the panhandlers I’d probably visit more.

  • brappleflap

    @Name Withheld
    I was referring to those who had already drifted off topic and were making just that kind of assertion, not the article itself.
    @Marc
    What’s a NIMBY? Is it anything like a Juggalo?

    Anyway the “nomadic community” should just take control of the lot. Make it look nice. Maybe start a garden. Ken would love it.

  • Evan Martin

    Some Berkeley students are taking on this problem. Check out their collaborative, wiki-style design contest and contribute to the discussion board there: http://letsmakehaste.wordpress.com/ 

    (example of a 3D concept entry from site: 
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ww_JfT8L_w

  • Commenter

    I understand many terriers can be very efficient at killing rodents. The ‘History of Dogs’ PBS show had an episode showing a terrier dispatching mice or rats (probably mice) in a corn silo. Amazing. Averaging a kill every second or so. Lots of breeds might be good ratters. I wonder if pit bull terriers could do that work?

  • guest

    these mice have infested our homes now. They are bold, and not afraid of us or the lights we turn on.

  • Boogermachine

    Once I saw the same guy feeding the pigeons who was working as a pest controller inside the Sather Garage maintaining the netting that’s supposed to keep the pigeons out. Imagine that. None of Berkeley’s problems will ever be solved without confronting the rampant corruption.