Berkeley City Councilman Kriss Worthington is pushing a Telegraph Avenue property owner to build the 6-story project he’s been promising, including affordable housing units, or pay more than $640,000 to the city.
In an agenda item slated to come before council Tuesday, Feb. 14, Worthington is trying to set a 90-day deadline to require Ken Sarachan to build at Haste Street and Telegraph, and “to provide affordable housing for the community” along with a public restroom, or make Sarachan pay fees to the city.
In 2013, Sarachan and the city reached a deal about the property, which has been vacant for decades. Under the settlement, Berkeley agreed to drop a lawsuit it had filed to force Sarachan to pay $640,000 in liens or have the city sell the lot at auction. But little obvious progress has been made since then.
Worthington said Sarachan’s current plans do not include the affordable housing units the settlement required: 20% affordable housing plus one extra unit. If he doesn’t build those units, under the settlement terms, Worthington said Sarachan is required to pay the city what he owes.
“Complaints of rats, trash, and noise have continued … with business owners especially affected by the lot’s lack of aesthetic appeal and sanitation,” writes Worthington in his Feb. 14 agenda item. “With the construction of the Sequoia building and the Cody’s Books building … in progress, it is urgent to get immediate results on this lot.”
He continues: “Immediate action to require the owner to begin development of the affordable housing units and public restroom would be of the utmost importance. The Owner should be required to deliver an executed agreement with a purchaser committed to developing the Property or begin construction of the structure themselves within the 90 Day Deadline.”
Worthington may have time on his side, to some extent, but 90 days could also be a tough sell depending on contractor schedules and final design review requirements from the city. Thursday night, the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board did vote unanimously in favor of Sarachan’s new plans for the project, which is called El Jardin.
According to city documents, Sarachan plans to demolish the 6,950-square-foot retail building at 2433 Telegraph, then construct a new 6-story, 111,726-square-foot mixed-use building with “group living accommodations” for 238 people in 161 bedrooms. There’s no off-street parking.
Included in the plans are 22,465 square feet of retail in the basement and ground floor.
When the project last came before the zoning board in 2014, the proposal was for 79 dwelling units. In 2015, Sarachan and UC Berkeley were working on a deal to allow the building to be used for student housing. But that deal later fell through.
According to the staff report for Thursday night’s zoning board meeting, “Each residential level is arranged around the courtyard at the podium level, with a mix of four-bedroom Living Accommodations, two-bedroom Living Accommodations and studios. The fourth and fifth floors also provide access to outdoor terraces at the corner of Haste and Telegraph. A larger roof deck above the sixth floor would provide the bulk of the usable open space.”
The increased density, staff wrote, would be in line with the surrounding neighborhood.
Two rooms devoted to bike storage “will provide enough bike parking for every resident in the building,” according to the staff report. Staff also wrote that nearly 500 mailers went out to nearby neighbors of the project and no one sent in feedback to the city in response.
Sarachan has said in the past that his Moorish palace-like structure was inspired by Italian hill towns, Tibetan forts and the rock-cut architecture of Petra in Jordan.
The zoning board had staff craft additional conditions of approval before signing off on the project, including a full-time manager on site and management offices in the lobby; a safety plan, with 24-hour staffing for the front desk, to be approved by the Berkeley Police Department; and ADA compliance in line with the building code, which was of particular concern in the bathrooms.
The conditions of approval must also reference the settlement between Sarachan and the city, which requires a public restroom and affordable housing requirements, commissioners said.
The board said the plan still needs final approval from the Design Review Committee, which will take a close look, in particular, at the stone materials proposed for the ground floor level. Some commissioners said they were not pleased about the lack of detail in the plans and did not think it was ready for a vote, but the longstanding delays for the vacant lot were also a subject of concern.
The lot at 2501 Haste St. was the home to the Berkeley Inn for decades. It burned down in the 1980s and Sarachan — who also owns Rasputin Records, Blondie’s Pizza, the old Cody’s Building diagonally across from the site, as well as the retail development at 2350 Telegraph — bought the property in 1994. There were a number of existing liens on the site, and Berkeley agreed to forgo them if Sarachan developed the plot, setting an initial deadline of 2004. Sarachan acquired adjacent properties to the east and north of the site in order to build an ambitious project.
Nothing happened for years. The lot sat vacant and was infested with rats. The City Council voted in September 2011 to foreclose on the property, which would have meant Sarachan had to pay off $640,000 in liens, or see the property sold at auction.
[Editor’s note: This story was updated shortly after publication to include further detail about the affordable units Councilman Kriss Worthington said are required under the settlement agreement. Berkeleyside also confirmed that UC Berkeley is no longer involved with the project.]