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Neighbors try to wipe out blight

By Matthew Artz
Friday November 01, 2002

A group of south Berkeley neighbors wants to meet the first African American to officiate a professional football game. But they’re not asking for his autograph. They want to tell him to fix up his run-down property on the corner of Sacramento and Julia streets. 

Blighted property is a citywide phenomenon, said Michael Caplan, a city neighborhood services liaison and a member of the city manager’s problem property team. Team members track derelict properties and work with neighbors who have become increasingly willing to take action against troublesome tenants and owners. 

Burl Toler, a San Francisco resident, a retired National Football League official and current board member of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, has owned the south Berkeley lot where the defunct King Liquors store sits since 1994. 

The shop closed down in the mid–80s’, and since then, neighbors say the lot has been used as a dumping ground. 

“A lot of homeless people come here to go through the trash. It makes the place look ghetto,” said Runni Vermel who lives directly behind the lot. 

Last December, fed-up neighbors sent Toler a letter imploring him to either renovate the property or sell it to somebody who would. 

Toler never responded. Now the neighbors, represented by the Russell, Oregon and California Street Neighborhood Organization, are considering legal recourse. 

Mark Goldowitz, an attorney who lives and works near the lot has offered his assistance in organizing a small claims suit against Toler. Neighbors who live in the lot’s immediate vicinity could sue Toler for $5,000 because of the negative effects his derelict property has had on adjacent homes, Goldowitz said. 

Stephanie Roesner, a neighbor, said that the tactic worked 13 years ago on Russell Street when more than 20 neighbors filed individual suits against the owners of the crime–ridden Rosewood Apartments on the 1600 block of Russell Street. The owners lost in court and ultimately sold the building to the city. 

However, Toler’s son, Gregory, said legal action will not be necessary in this case. 

“We’re going to work with the city of Berkeley as best we can to make sure the property is maintained until it is developed in the near future,” he said, adding that last week he had trash removed from the lot. 

Taj Johns, a city neighborhood services liaison, met with Toler and his father on Tuesday and said they made progress on addressing the neighbors’ concerns. 

In the short term, the Tolers agreed to do weekly maintenance and install lights on the property, Johns said. If the Tolers fail to keep the lot free of trash, the city has the authority to put a lien on the property. 

The ultimate future of the plot, though, remains unclear.  

Gregory Toler said his family would like to build a small development with a ground floor shop and fewer than 20 units of housing above. 

But he acknowledged that developers have not shown interest. He and his father are working on financing the project themselves. They have not hired a designer and have no timetable on when their plans will be finalized. 

Neighbors cringed when told of the Tolers plans. “He’s got to be kidding,” said Roesner, noting that at 3,100 square feet, the lot is less then a tenth of an acre and smaller than the nearby lots with single family homes. “Certainly a retail space is needed with maybe one or two apartments above, but anything else is totally out of scale,” she said. 

Neighborhood cleanup efforts continue today in south Berkeley with a city sponsored cleanup of Sacramento Street from Dwight Way to the Oakland border. 


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