Two years after fire, downtown Berkeley lot is both safety hazard and homeless camp

Gaps in fencing around the site of the old Mandarin Garden restaurant have left a hazardous site exposed. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

On Black Friday in 2015, not one, but two fires — the second devastating  — hit the Mandarin Garden restaurant at 2025 Shattuck Ave. in downtown Berkeley. More than two years later, nothing new has gone up in place of the demolished restaurant, and, after protective fencing came down this fall, homeless campers and, sometimes, photographers have made appearances at the deteriorating site, where safety hazards appear to abound.

Mandarin Garden sat between Patelco Credit Union and Venus Café, both of which were damaged in the fire and took months to reopen. The gutted Mandarin Garden building was demolished, but brick walls covered in smoke damage, peeling paint and graffiti still surround the site, and large metal supports stick out into the debris-covered ground. Tarps that were covering one of the walls are falling down.

Representatives from the city and business association said there is not much they can do to address the site, as it’s private property.

“Definitely it’s been on our radar as an issue spot,” said Lance Gorée, Downtown Berkeley Association operations manager. “We have tried to get hold of the owner to ask them to do some mitigating things,” but have not been successful, he said.

In Alameda County assessor records, the property owner is listed as HSL Development LLC. Records in the secretary of state office list Tianzuo Liu as the agent for the property and his address in the Gaia Building, just a few blocks from the Mandarin Garden parcel on Allston Way. (Other records show the LLC’s address as Kittredge Street’s K Street Flats, formerly Library Gardens). LinkedIn lists a Tianzuo Liu as a student at UC Berkeley from 2013 to 2016.

Previously, Berkeley resident Weng Kong Wong owned the property since at least 1978, according to the records. He owned and ran the restaurant as well.

Wong’s wife, who did not want her name published, told Berkeleyside they sold the damaged property after the fire. After running the restaurant for more than 30 years before the fire, Wong decided it was time to retire, she said. After the fire, some Berkeleyside readers commented that they had loved the restaurant and its friendly owner.

“I really miss their noodles with minced meat,” said reader Jill Smo this month.

The city and others have limited authority to address the burned down site at 2025 Shattuck Ave., as it’s private property. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

City Councilwoman Kate Harrison, who represents downtown Berkeley, said the property owner was required to put up a security fence around the site after the fire. Fencing was in place for many months but disappeared for a few months this fall. A new fence was installed in the last couple of weeks or so, but there are big gaps in it now, allowing people to enter the site anyway. Often passers-by will go poke around the space or conduct photo shoots against the graffiti-covered backdrop.

Up to ten people began sleeping at the site about a month ago, though they may have moved out in the past week.

Last week, some of the people said they were considering moving because the rain had revealed that the site has poor drainage and brought up safety concerns. One camper’s erratic behavior had also led to issues with trash and had drawn unwanted attention, according to them.

Roger, a man who had been sleeping at the site, said a tight-knit community had developed among the campers, most of whom knew each other already. Looking at the strewn-about clothing and trash, he said he wanted to launch an “in-house clean team.”

“What I don’t want to see happening is this community experiment have to be [supported] by taxpayers,” said Roger, who did not give his last name.

Another man who had been sleeping at the site, and said he could no longer afford Berkeley rent, said he was just trying “to live warm and comfortable.”

“They don’t want us in the doorways, but if we go out of the way,” further in from the sidewalk at the Mandarin Garden site, there are complaints as well, he said.

Some people have slept at the vacant site, some leaving trash and clothing strewn about. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Berkeley Police Lt. Andrew Rateaver said last week that BPD had not received any calls for service at the site for several months. He said he responded to an incident there on Dec. 28, but it had to do with a person who was likely in crisis and voluntarily left, not a complaint about the encampment.

He said police have limited authority at a site like this.

“Private property is just that,” Rateaver wrote in an email to Berkeleyside. “If the owner doesn’t grant permission for a lodger to be there, then that lodger is trespassing, subject to a citizen arrest.”

However, he said many business owners file letters giving BPD preemptive permission to patrol and arrest people who trespass.

“We use these on a regular basis” in the downtown area, he said.

Chad, who is a close friend of the homeless group but has not lived at the site, described some of the campers as “rebellious against shelters,” saying many preferred to sleep on the streets over staying in Berkeley shelters.

It is unusual for homeless encampments to occupy private property in Berkeley, though there are many others in public spaces, including large groups along Second Street, on the Old City Hall lawn and at the bottom of University Avenue.

Harrison did not clarify whether she has been in contact with the Shattuck property owner herself but said the city planned to ask them to secure the fencing.

“I would like to see all of our vacant sites activated and producing tax revenues,” Harrison wrote in an email to Berkeleyside. “However, since this is private property, it is up to the property owner to move forward. We are considering a vacant property registration to allow analysis by the City and to encourage owners to move forward.”