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Frustration grows over vacant lot

6 October 2008 No Comment

By Will Jason

More than a year after announcing plans for redevelopment, the owner of a long-vacant lot in Berkeley’s Southside neighborhood has still not filed official plans with the city. And with the city officials and the owner’s partners growing impatient, the chance to revive what many see as a neglected corner – Telegraph Ave. and Haste St. – could soon fade away.

“A new building would be good for the neighborhood,” said Mario Tejada, 78, who said he has owned

This lot at the corner of Telegraph Ave and Haste St. has been vacant for more than 15 years

This lot at the corner of Telegraph Ave and Haste St. has been vacant for more than 15 years

Mario’s La Fiesta restaurant, across the street from the site, since 1959.

The corner is one of just a few vacant lots in the Southside neighborhood, and the only one in the Telegraph Ave. business district. Formerly the home of the Berkeley Inn, the site has been vacant since the late 1980’s.

In 1994, the owner of Rasputin Music next door, Ken Sarachan, bought the site, which was abandoned by the previous owner. As part of the purchase, Sarachan inherited hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to the city because Berkeley had been repairing and maintaining the site.

Since then, the city has made offers to forgive at least some of the debt if Sarachan agreed to redevelop the site. The two parties have discussed multiple project proposals, but none have moved forward.

“For various reasons, the economics of it didn’t work out because of the expense of development,” said David Fogarty of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development.

Things changed in April of 2007, when Sarachan purchased another adjacent site, the historic Woolley House, from the University of California, Berkeley. Sarachan said if he could move the Woolley House off site, he could combine his properties on Telegraph Ave. and build a mixed use project.

Developer John Gordon, who owns the nearby Peet’s Coffee & Tea property on Dwight Way, agreed to receive the Woolley House and incorporate it into a separate residential project behind the coffee shop. Gordon said he is waiting for Sarachan to file an application to move the historic house, a prerequisite for development at both properties.

“We’ve been waiting for [Sarachan] for six months to act,” Gordon said.

Sarachan did not return several calls placed to his office last week and on Monday.

Sarachan’s preliminary drawings for the Telegraph project, submitted to the city last July, call for a five-story building with multi-tired Asian-style towers and a rooftop garden. According to Fogarty, the design is unusual for Berkeley and is partly to blame for delays to the project. The city is awaiting an official application from Sarachan, and is negotiating with him about how much information he will provide in the meantime, Fogarty said.

“The city wants to cooperate with getting it built,” Fogarty said.

For now, the city’s offer to forgive Sarachan’s debt is still on the table but that could change, according to Fogarty.

“There is going to be a deadline for getting all of this done,” Fogarty said.

Meanwhile, local residents and business owners say they are not holding their breath to see when the vacant lot may finally see a new building.

“It’s not a nice-looking spot, butt what can we do?” said Tejada.

When the lot first became vacant, “it was bad for business, it was bad for morale on the street,” said Gene Barone, 60, who said he has worked at Moe’s Books on Telegraph Ave. for 30 years. “For us who have lived in Berkeley for a long time it’s just there, it’s part of the landscape now.”

Colin Hector, a law student at U.C. Berkeley, said he recently moved to an apartment near the site. The lot doesn’t stand out amid the graffiti and vacant storefronts visible elsewhere on Telegraph, he said.

“I haven’t really noticed it,” said Hector, 24, as he commuted past the lot Monday morning. “I haven’t really felt like it’s really detracted from whatever aesthetic Telegraph has.”

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