Sequoia fire aftermath: Cause, rights, future

All that remains of the Sequoia Building is the one-story façade on Telegraph that housed Café Intermezzo and Raleigh's. Photos: Lance Knobel

The elevator system in the Sequoia Building at 2441 Haste Street where a fire broke out on the night of November 18th, ultimately destroying the 39-unit building, had not been inspected in over a year and its permit had expired, according to an article in the Berkeley Voice.

Fire investigators determined last week that the fire, which made 70 people homeless, originated in the elevator machinery in the basement of the five-story building, and that it was accidental. Gears in the machinery heated up, igniting nearby wood and eventually engulfing the building, according to officials.

The last time the elevator was inspected was in August 2010 and the permit for the elevator expired in August of this year. Dean Fryer, a spokesman with the California Department of Industrial Relations told the Berkeley Voice that the elevator had not been inspected and issued a permit because the agency is running about five months behind.

Following a week of demolition work, all that is now left of the Sequoia Building is the first-floor façade on the Telegraph Avenue side which used to house Café Intermezzo and Raleigh’s Bar & Grill, both businesses owned by the building’s owners, Kenneth and Greg Ent. Behind the one-story wall lies a huge mound of rubble. Car and pedestrian traffic is now open on both Telegraph and Haste.

Traffic access -- vehicular and pedestrian -- is re-opened on both Haste and Telegraph

Meanwhile, former tenants of the building, many of them students at UC Berkeley, have been organizing to ensure their rights are met and the owners adhere to their legal responsibilities. They are holding meetings, two of the group’s leaders — Milad Yasdanpanah and Hooman Shahrokhi –requested a meeting with Mayor Tom Bates, and they are talking to lawyers and Berkeley’s Rent Board. The group is receiving support from Cal administration as well as the student-run ASUC.

Councilmember Kriss Worthington, whose district includes the building, is taking an open letter to the Mayor, written by the self-described “Homeless, Hopeless and Helpless Tenants of 2441 Haste Street”, to City Council on December 13th. The authors complain of a lack of communication on the part of the Ents, and of what they say was their failure to adequately maintain the building. The tenants write: “Cosmetic enhancements during the past six months are no cure for issues we experienced with flickering lights, faulty elevator operation, electrical shortages and much more.”

At a gathering on campus of student tenants on November 28th, former residents complained of fire escapes that ended on a second floor rooftop with no way to get down, broken fire alarms and smoke detectors, low water pressure, and elevator breakdowns (which resulted in at least one case of tenants being trapped inside the elevator).

A fire at the building in February damaged two apartments and a stairwell. In 2006, Shahrokhi won a case in small-claims court after a short circuit sparked a fire that destroyed a laptop and bedding in his apartment. Worthington said at the meeting he believed there was “an enormous liability with this landlord”.

Worthington is recommending to Council that all permit fees be waived in order to expediate the re-opening of Café Intermezzo and Raleigh’s, both previously popular Telegraph Avenue eateries. In addition, he is  asking that the city look into the feasibility of offering free two-hour customer parking in UC Berkeley parking lots and the Telegraph/Channing parking garage for one month to encourage people to patronize local shops.

Demolition of Sequoia Building halted after wall collapse [12.02.11]
A Berkeley building is turned into a heap of rubble, debris [12.01.11]
Sequoia fire accidental, started in elevator machinery [11.30.11]
Berkeley’s 95-year-old Sequoia Building is brought down [11.29.11]
Sequoia: Demolition imminent as tenants meet to complain [11.28.11]
The Sequoia Building: At heart of Berkeley’s rich heritage [11.23.11]
Friday’s fire “another hit in the face” for Telegraph Avenue [11.21.11]
“Largest fire since 1991″ leaves many locals homeless [11.19.11]
Devastating fire in apartment building, Haste at Telegraph [11.19.11]

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  • Andrew

    So who is liable if the elevator was not inspected because the inspecting agency is running behind? What responsibility does the inspecting agency have to renew permits in a timely manner?

    Ultimately, it will be the insurance companies who go after each other.

  • Guest

    ASUC, not ASCU

  • Anonymous

    It’s a shame that it takes the physical destruction of Berkeley small businesses to motivate aggressive action on making it easier for small businesses to open and operate in Berkeley. Ironic, n’est-ce pas?

  • While city agencies are running five months behind on SAFETY inspections, we feel it necessary to waste city time (ergo money) on condemning the Obama Administration for using Native American names as military jargon.  Brilliant!

  • Anonymous

    A more careful reading either of the story or of the inspection certificate in an elevator near you would reveal that it is the State, not the City of Berkeley, that is responsible for elevator inspection.

    I’m no stranger to taking cheap shots at Berkeley City governance, but this one doesn’t really fly.

  • Guest

    The tenants did meet with the Mayor on November 30th, and it ‘went well’ according to their facebook page.  I’m assuming they presented the letter that Councilmember Kriss is taking to council next week -they published it in the Dailycal.

  • Anonymous

    If a building you live in or work in doesn’t have a current valid elevator permit you should report this fact to the State of California:

    Many elevator safety questions are answered at the following link:

    And, don’t try to climb out of a broken elevator:

  • Anonymous

    The Bay Area Cal/OSHA – Elevator Unit contact information is at this link:

  • Haselstein

    This is what happens when the state has no money. 

  • Anonymous

    I have tried to read all the media coverage of tearing down the Sequoia. As of yet, I have not read the rationale for keeping the first floor wall along Telegraph? What’s the reason for that?  I am not asking skeptically or sarcastically. I am curious to know.

  • What do you do, however, when they post one of those signs that says “elevator permit on file in building office” ?  No one will ever go look to see if that permit is current.  Why is that even allowed?

  • Speculating

    I don’t know what the official reason is, but some possibilities come to mind…

    From the owner’s perspective, leaving up a scrap of the building will likely speed up the permitting process and allow them to avoid conformance with current zoning and code restrictions.

    From a preservation perspective, the first floor wall along Telegraph is the storefront wall, and has architectural features that are visible at street level.  You see this quite often in old European cities, where the street level is historic, but the building above is newer, so that the part that most people see closely and interact with, has it’s character preserved.

  • Anonymous

    You ask to see it. If they don’t show it, report that fact to the State, and enjoy the exercise of taking the stairs.

  • I stand corrected re: elevator permit process and admit to a close reading failure. 

    That said, I’m don’t entirely agree that I was taking a cheap shot at city governance.  Putting aside the issue of elevator responsibility, there seems to be a pattern of ignored issues at that building that are only now being addressed (i.e., when it is too late for the former tenants).  Or is the city not at all responsible for any issues at the building like the electrical system?  Because in that case many of us have been paying permit fees to the wrong entity.

    When city government ignores things (like enforcement of existing laws (see recent Berkeleyside article re: Soft Storey Buildings)) and instead repeatedly acts in a ridiculous fashion, pointing out the aforementioned short-sighted ridiculousness is not ipso facto a cheap shot.

    In a system where city government is ultimately accountable to the people, if city government doesn’t want its ridiculous ordering of priorities highlighted it should probably examine said order.

  • Charles_Siegel

    “Worthington is recommending to Council that all permit fees be waived in
    order to expedite the re-opening of Café Intermezzo and Raleigh’s”

    Where are they expected to reopen?  Obviously not on this site any time soon.

  • Ryan

    Truly there is nothing special about this facade to keep it for its beauty or historical significance. It is a mish-mash after all these years of different materials and windows. The only reason to keep it is to get around zoning. I hope that if this is the building owners thought, that he “remodel” it after the building is built behind it.

  • Anonymous

    I am not persuaded that Cafe Intermezzo and Raleigh’s, which were/are owned by the slumlords who failed to properly maintained the Sequoia, should be entitled to permit fee waivers. Neither am I persuaded why any businesses should be allowed to jump ahead of the line. Berkeley needs all businesses that want to open in Berkeley to have an efficient, expedited process.

    But no matter what, I see no reason to reward the landlord/owners of the Sequoia, who also own Intermezzo and Raleigh’s: in a way, if we waive their fees and expedite, we are rewarding them for having neglected their buildilng. That’s not right, is it? 

    As far as your question, Charles_Siegel, regarding where? . .. . Berkeley has quite a lot of empty storefront space, unfortunately. And there are empty retail spaces, again very sadly, near the Sequoia.  Obviously not on the Sequoia site but if these businesses seriously want to reopen asap, space is not the problem.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t know of any vacant spaces nearby that are large enough for these businesses, except one or two that are leased by Ken Sarachan.  Maybe there is a vacant space of the right size on Durant.