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.

Related:
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]