‘Moorish palace’ plans for Telegraph show little progress

The design for a mixed-use project at 2501 Haste St. Courtesy: Kirk E. Peterson & Associates

This mixed-use project proposed at 2501 Haste St. has been in limbo for many months. Courtesy: Kirk E. Peterson & Associates

The frustration was palpable Thursday night as zoning board commissioners noted the lack of headway by the property owner of a highly anticipated mixed-use project proposed on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue.

The empty lot at 2501 Haste St., at Telegraph, has been vacant for more than 20 years, though owner Ken Sarachan has said he would like to build a 6-story Moorish palace-like structure there.

In 2012, Sarachan submitted preliminary plans to the community about his vision. But the process since then has been murky. Issues quickly cropped up related to the fate of an historic home on the project site, the potential need for an environmental review, and existing liens on the property which added up to $640,000. The latest hurdle is due to missing documents and details needed from the project architect, which must be turned in to the city before any approvals can take place.

Last fall, Sarachan and the city reached an agreement as part of a lawsuit regarding the property. As a result, the city agreed to forgo the money it was owed if Sarachan stuck to a particular development schedule for the project, called “El Jardin.” (It was also identified as “Ken’s Folly” on one early plan set.)

Under the current proposal, the 6-story building would include 79 dwelling units, more than 30,000 square feet of ground-floor commercial space and no off-street parking spaces. In a very brief statement about El Jardin, the units are described as primarily “generous one and two bedroom” apartments. The development team also said it was “exploring other community friendly possibilities such as public open space and a place where local artists and artisans can congregate to trade and sell their wares in a gallery like setting.”

When the blueprints for the building were first revealed, in April 2012, project architect Kirk Peterson said the design was inspired by Italian hill towns, Tibetan forts and the rock-cut architecture of Petra in Jordan, and the project name was “La Fortaleza” (as in “fortress” or “stronghold”).

Part of a building at 2433 Telegraph, just to the north of the empty lot, would be demolished to make room for the new structure.

What Telegraph Avenue, at Haste, could one day look like. Photo simulation: Kirk Peterson & Associates

What Telegraph Avenue, at Haste, could one day look like. Photo simulation: Kirk Peterson & Associates Architecture

Since the settlement was reached, the project has appeared repeatedly before the city’s Design Review Committee and Zoning Adjustments Board, as recently as Thursday night.

But — though they say they are excited about the prospect of the project — zoning board commissioners said Thursday they didn’t quite understand why basic documents they have requested, which are needed for design review to move forward, have not been submitted. Those include more detailed floor plans and elevation views, as well as landscape plans and more information about proposed project materials.

Under the settlement, the project must continue to appear on the agendas of both panels, whether or not new information has been turned in.

Earlier this year, Peterson did submit a request to pursue a density bonus for the project, which could make for a taller building with more units and fewer setbacks than would otherwise be allowed. But, according to Thursday night’s staff report, that application is incomplete and the city is awaiting more information, which was requested earlier this month.

Advisory comments submitted last summer from the Design Review Committee. Image: City of Berkeley

Advisory comments submitted last summer by the city’s Design Review Committee after seeing the project for the first time. Image: City of Berkeley

Zoning commissioners voted Thursday night to continue the matter to May 22, but said they were concerned about the failure of the applicant to produce the missing materials. They said they did not want their repeated continuations to reflect poorly on themselves or the city, or to seem like any kind of tacit approval.

City planner Greg Powell told the board there had been “absolutely no change in the project” since its first preview before the design review board in June 2013.

“A record is developing for a lack of performance on one side,” he said. “The city attorney is fully aware of the status as of today. I suspect that something is going to be different before we meet again.”

City attorney Zach Cowan said Friday that Sarachan had met some of his obligations as a result of attending the hearings since December, but that the current process — of waiting to receive the requested project documents — “is not free to go on forever.”

Cowan said the project would have to continue to appear on upcoming zoning and design review agendas — under the rules of the settlement — even if there’s nothing new to say.

Ken Sarachan. Photo courtesy of Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association

Ken Sarachan. Photo: Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association

Sarachan attended Thursday night’s zoning board meeting, though he arrived after the board’s vote to continue the matter. He brought with him a very large model of his project, and told the board he was under the impression that his architect and the city were “making lots of good progress” regarding the density bonus request.

Commissioners said they were not satisfied with that report.

Commissioner Sophie Hahn described El Jardin as “a fabulous crazy project” that she hopes to be able to approve one day. But she urged Sarachan to do everything in his power to push Peterson to turn over the missing documents “in a timely manner.”

Added Commissioner Bob Allen: “It’s a lot of fun and I would like to see it get built.” But he said none of the board’s questions had yet been addressed.

“I hope you’re not here trying to represent that you’re moving forward by showing us this (model),” he told Sarachan. “Because you haven’t done anything.”

Sarachan told the board he is “cooperative 100%” and said the delay could be due to his architect’s limited resources as a “busy guy” with “many other clients”: “I’m not holding Kirk [Peterson] back, or not paying his bills, or not anything that you imagine might be slowing him down. I’m there every day going, ‘Come on, Kirk, come on, Kirk.'”

Sarachan said he has developers already lined up “to pay the $30 million to build this thing,” and expressed frustration with the city’s approval process.

Commissioner Igor Tregub said, whatever Sarachan thinks of the process, the documents must be turned in before action can be taken.

“All we’re asking for is compliance with what has been requested,” Tregub said. “We’re not particularly interested in how it gets there.”

Sarachan, who also owns Rasputin Records, Blondie’s Pizza, the old Cody’s building and the retail development at 2350 Telegraph, has brought plans for the Haste site to the city before, including one that was based on a pagoda design. They were not approved. A plan to build affordable housing and an expanded Amoeba Records on the site fell through after Sarachan bought the land.

Read more Berkeleyside real estate coverage. See documents related to El Jardin on the city website.

‘Moorish-style palace’ for Telegraph Ave. is step closer (12.16.13)
Berkeley settles case with blighted Telegraph lot owner (10.31.13)
Telegraph Avenue property owner shows plan for vacant site (04.19.12)
Can Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue get its mojo back? (04.18.12)
Imagining a future for Telegraph Avenue without blinders (04.11.12)
Telegraph fire site owner plans for temporary resurrection (02.06.12)
Urban think tank: Student visions for blighted Telegraph lot (10.03.11)
City hands ultimatum to Sarachan on vacant Telegraph lot (09.07.11)
What about that vacant lot on Haste and Telegraph? (08.11.11)
Berkeley students want better stores, fewer street people (05.31.11)
City says it is addressing Telegraph Avenue rats problem (02.10.11)
The rats of Telegraph Avenue (video) (01.28.11)

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  • guest

    Time for plan B yet ? : “If Sarachan fails to meet that and other deadlines, Berkeley has the right to make Sarachan forfeit the deed of trust” We can turn it into housing for nice old people and children who are left homeless by the housing crisis.

  • John Freeman

    Sarachan has been taken to court. It’s a big mess. The city also screwed up big time. The court has strongly encouraged the parties to sort it out themselves. The city has a pretty weak hand.

    And so here we are. The city gets to harass Sarachan by forcing him to show up for do-nothing meetings sitting before zoning officials who pretend they like the idea of this comical building, and Sarachan gets to mock them and accumulate further examples of staff’s incoherent position. It’s kind of a stormy romance. Lots of passion and a few broken dishes here and there.

    It is a (kinda funny) detente, for now.

    Personally, I think Sarachan is a retail genius (“Dream” notwithstanding) and civic performance artist (re Tele & Haste).

    The city needs to move on collecting the $640,000 that Mr. Sarachan owes.

    You are looking at their best effort. Period. Not because they lack will but because they are long-standing f–k ups.

    Someone should be laying odds and making book on whether the city gets to eventually force him to build such an absurd monstrosity.

  • Just Say No To Telegraph Bligh

    Wasn’t it obvious to everyone that this was exactly what was going to happen?

    After his decade-plus record of hostile activity the city should treat Sarachan as an enemy combatant.

    Our city leadrers need to ake off the kid gloves and stop giving him easy outs. Sarachan’s goal is to destroy the southern end of Telegraph so that students never venture further than his business properties. Let’s stop pretending otherwise and start getting serious about breaking up his growing empire of blight.

    If Richmond can find legal ways to take on the big banks surely Berkeley can find a way to take on one hostile property owner.

  • David D.

    In other news, water is wet. Maybe one day Sarachan will deliver and the City will approve. At the rate things are going, though, his estate will be building this and not him. He seems to be all talk and no action.

  • guest

    Defending the indefensible. Giving accolades to the antisocial. Happily cheering on those who are trying to destroy what little is left of the once-vibrant Telegraph business district.

    If you hate Berkeley so much, why not leave?

  • Chris

    There is plenty of talk of a “deadline” but NO deadline with an actual date. Pathetic!

  • Hyper_lexic

    Has anyone actually seen the agreement between Sarachan and the city? I’m really curious if there are any enforceable clauses in it. One would think this is a public document?

    Emilie/Berkeleyside – have you seen it, if not are you interested in inquiring as a public service ;)

  • Hyper_lexic

    I wonder if the city has any tools to force him to do something with the old Cody’s building as well (aside from tax him appropriately, which given Prop 13 is probably not too painful for him). that’s really the worst corner in the city – empty lot to the NE, empty building to the SW, burned down building to the NW. If the latter is rebuilt it will be a help but still need the other two addressed!

  • Hyper_lexic

    Is this stance of the court stated in some sort of decision that we could see?

  • emraguso

    Haven’t seen it but I can try to track it down.

  • Hyper_lexic

    Thanks. I imagine others would be interested as well. Seems like a very crucial point – is there anything enforceable?

  • John Freeman

    Yes, but I don’t have the case number handy for you and, worse, the Alameda Superior Court has decided to start charging outrageous per-page fees to download public documents. My certainly imperfect recollection is that over the years the agreements between the city and the property owners were recorded over numerous documents, never quite perfected with a clear meeting of the minds. There was a failed defense along the lines the Sarachan’s wife had not actually entered into an agreement to which she was allegedly bound but even though that one failed, the city’s stance was at best muddy. Counter-claims that the city had failed to perform on various issues. There was a change of attorneys. Bickering over conference scheduling/attendance. A real circus.

    I second your hope that BS can do a public records request to get and publish the settlement. Not sure if the law supports that.

  • Bishop George Berkeley

    Hah. Ken’s been yanking the City’s chain for years.

    I can picture the meeting, as Ken tells his architect to come up with the second-most-absurd plans he can muster (because the pagoda plans he submitted the first time — those were the most absurd, right?). They chuckle at “El Jardin” and send it in, confident it will be rejected so that he can say it’s all the city’s fault. BUT, in a cruel twist of fate, Ken overestimates the aesthetic sensibilities of Sophie Hahn and Igor Tregub! Suddenly their little joke is “a fabulous crazy project!” Good heavens, that wasn’t the plan at all! Hijinks ensue.

    (Or, more cynically still, Sophie Hahn and Igor Tregub call Ken’s bluff by pretending to love El Jardin. Either way…hijinks ensue!)

    Here’s a tip, Zach Cowan: if you’re this afraid of litigation, just admit it and hire some real lawyers to get this job done once and for all. Afterwards, we can re-define the job as “City Paralegal” and save some cash.

  • guest

    Have you heard the story of the boy who cried wolf? If you always say that nothing can be done, people will stop believing you. They will start believing that you want nothing to be done.

  • George Beier

    Yeah, well, I don’t eat at Blondies or shop at Rasputins/voting with my dollars. The City should work to acquire the property and sell it to someone who will actually build on it.

  • emraguso

    Those charges just started recently. It’s pretty appalling. I wonder what the approval process for that was. Haven’t looked into it but whoever is covering the county should cover that (if they haven’t already).

  • John Freeman

    Nearly all residents get nearly no personal or household benefit from “actually [building] on it.” What’s your urgency?

  • jjohannson

    Block the entrance to Rasputin, and dangle plastic (or caught) rats off the fence surrounding the parcel. Make it about Sarachin. Hey, hey, ho, ho, Berkeley slumlords got to go.

  • notnot2

    Didn’t he also say that a retail vacancy tax was impossible? Looks like that was wrong too.

  • notnot2

    Everyone benefits from a vibrant downtown. NOBODY benefits from a nasty weed-filled lot except Sarachan who wants to screw his competitors.

  • Doug F

    It’d be very interesting to find out 1) who actually made that decision & 2) what they’re trying to cover up from the public & media.

  • Don’t Ever Change Ever

    Ken’s model was pretty impressive, though:

  • Kirk Peterson

    Mr. Sarachen is in the driver’s seat. My firm has provided all of the documents we have been hired to prepare. We are presently working with the planning department on the density bonus – a rather arcane exercise. For those interested in the design, the complete submittal for the project can be seen on the City’s web site, for free. A detailed model of the project can be seen in the front window of my office at 5253 College Avenue in Oakland.

  • fran haselsteiner

    Time for an eminent domain action. Not only are Sarachan’s properties blight, bringing down Telegraph’s economic vitality, but they are depriving the city of tax revenue. Pay down the city’s cost to take the properties by deducting the money he owes the city. This is ridiculous.

  • guest

    From what I know of the two people, I believe Kirk Peterson’s statement that “My firm has provided all of the documents we have been hired to prepare” and I do not believe Sarachan’s statement that “the delay could be due to his architect’s limited resources.”

  • EBGuy

    Here is chapter and verse from the Berkeley Municipal code. A lot of Sarachan’s “performance art” attempts to point out nebulous requirements imposed by the city. As you can see below,.the code is both specific and at the same time leaves a lot of “requirements” up to the discretion of the Zoning Officer.

    23E.12.010 Application Requirements
    A. Applications for projects subject to
    design review shall include such information as may be required by the
    Zoning Officer. Such information may include, but is not limited to,
    site plans, floor plans, building sections perpendicular to the street,
    exterior elevations, photographs of the subject or abutting properties,
    perspective or axonometric drawings and/or a model, description of
    building materials, material and/color samples, exterior lighting and
    fence plans, signage details and locations, and landscape and irrigation

    As per the ZAB report, the city is looking for detailed dimensioned plans and elevations, detailed section drawings and a landscaping plan. If Sarachan refuses to provide these (and pay Petersen to produce them) I would think the foreclosure could go through. Obviously, Sarachan will ignore any other “subjective recommendations” from the DRC or ZAB that have to do with the overall design.

  • guest

    Believing that Sarachan is attempting to point anything out to anyone attributes far more noble and intelligent of an intent to his actions than seems warranted by his decades of petty actions against his business rivals.

    He has money to burn and is trashing the southern end of the Telegraph in part to spite his competitors at Amobea Records but mostly just so that Cal students won’t feel inclined to venture any further down the avenue than where his businesses are located.

  • John Freeman

    Do you have any sense if Sarachan’s reasonable in asserting that it makes sense to complete the density bonus issue before the design review? It seems plausible to me but its a domain I don’t understand very well yet.

    Reviewing the meeting video it seems to me that they were talking about the design review hold-ups mainly because they had little else to talk about and some commissioners apparently felt a need to spank him — not because there was really much controversy here.

  • guest

    You act as though a rich business owner shitting on the city for decades isn’t something worth being reprimanded.


    Don’t forget that Sarachan also owns T-Shirt Orgy/Bear Basics, the clothing store at the corner of Telegraph & Durant.

  • John Freeman

    mostly just so that Cal students won’t feel inclined to venture any further down the avenue than where his businesses are located.

    If that’s his plan someone should let him know it doesn’t work very well.

  • guest
  • guest

    According to what proof, exactly? Please show us your study that conclusively shows that the Sarachan-blighted corner of Telegraph & Haste doesn’t have any impact on foot traffic or deter those who are casually strolling the avenue in a southbound direction from traveling further in that direction.

  • JW

    No headway on a Sarachan project? This is not a surprise.

  • guest

    A truly bad idea. After Sarachan the City is the last owner I’d want to see take the property. The city developing on Telly? Figure another 10 years of planning, lawsuits, initiatives, and on and on. Plus do you want the City taking property in the name of what they feel are it’s “best interests?” No to Kelo

  • Bishop George Berkeley

    Awesome. What a great post.

  • fran haselsteiner

    Kelo isn’t a great option, but what’s your solution? What anchor tenants are going to come to Telegraph under the current condition?

  • EBGuy

    Well he is paying over $40k in property taxes on the old Cody’s building — which is twice what the previous owners were paying. That’s a lot of spite money; hopefully Mad Monk sees the light of day as that part of Telegraph needs a shot in arm, so to speak.

    As someone on another thread put it “You’ve got to give credit to someone who can out crazy the City of Berkeley.” He certainly is wily.

  • emraguso
  • guest

    “the pagoda plans he submitted the first time — those were the most absurd,”

    This comment is amusing but factually challenged. Kirk Peterson did not submit the pagoda plans, which obviously was not economically feasible. Peterson has designed many buildings in Berkeley (eg, Gaia Building, Trader Joes), and he is a serious architect who designs buildable projects.

    I am afraid that this commenter is so impressed with his own sense of humor that he doesn’t realize that he is attacking the reputation of a serious and skilled professional.

  • Bishop George Berkeley

    Okay, there’s sloppy pronoun use in the paragraph. The “he” in “he submitted” was directed at Ken Sarachen, not Kirk Peterson. I’m sorry to have inadvertently saddled Mr. Peterson with a project worse than El Jardin.
    Second, let’s be honest here: nothing written in these comments will do as much damage to Mr. Peterson’s reputation as this ill-advised business relationship with Sarachen. Mr. Peterson’s own comment above (about who is in the driver’s seat) suggests he may now feel the same way.

  • emraguso

    Yes — I posted it earlier but not as a direct reply at the top of the comments. Here it is though:

  • Hyper_lexic

    ah – thanks, i’ll reply above!

  • Hyper_lexic

    thanks. This is very interesting. The main control here seems to be H.3.3.0, which basically says that Sarachan will work with the ZAB: “Sarachan shall respond to any comments issued by the ZAB in time for the continued ZAB proceedings”.

    It looks like basically the ZAB is building the record of Sarachan being out of compliance with this requirement – as the planner Powell says above:
    “A record is developing for a lack of performance on one side,” he said. “The city attorney is fully aware of the status as of today. I suspect that something is going to be different before we meet again.”

    Overall it looks to me like the city is doing the right thing – building a basis for action on the terms of this agreement.

  • guest

    As far as I can see, construction has stopped at the old Cody’s building across the street, though Sarachan got ZAB approval for this project.

    It is very possible that, after the city pressures him to go through the ZAB process for the Moorish palace, Sarachan will then delay construction there, as he has done at Cody’s.

  • Hyper_lexic

    Check out the document from Emilie – it has pretty strict timelines for starting and completing construction once the ZAB approves the design.


    Sarachan is killing Telegraph and his businesses should be boycotted.

    What a shame that this a-hole yanked the Cody’s space out from under the Brainwash owners who actually wanted to put a real business in that space that would have helped the neighborhood.