Page One

Sather Mall Upgrade Ousts Doctor

Tuesday July 29, 2003

Confusion over lease deadlines and a proposed upgrade of the Sather Gate Mall on Durant Avenue, near Telegraph Avenue, have left one longtime Berkeley optometrist without an office. 

Dr. Donald Sebanc, who has operated out of the city-owned space at 2446 Durant Ave. since 1972, marked his last day in his office Monday by packing up display cases of eyeglasses and chatting with student workers after he and city officials failed to negotiate a lease extension for the space. Sebanc is vacating the location, but he did not leave without a fight. 

Sebanc has provided optometry services to Berkeley residents for the past 31 years. Though he has many regular clients who buy corrective lenses from his shop, much of his work is provided pro bono for people who cannot afford glasses, he said. Sebanc also operates a branch location of his office in Oakland, but said that 70 percent of his business comes from the Sather Gate Mall store. 

“I guess this is it for me,” Sebanc said Monday as he stacked boxes in a corner of his former office. He said he’ll try to relocate his office, but doubted that he could find a new place for the $1,000 monthly rent he paid for the Durant Avenue location. 

When Sebanc’s lease expired in 2000, the city of Berkeley provided him with a new lease contract: a guaranteed five-year period with the possibility of an additional five-year option. Three weeks later, Sebanc said, he received a revised contract proposal, this one granting him only a two-year lease with a possible three-year additional option. 

“They cut my lease in half without giving me any reason or notifying me in advance,” Sebanc said. “I don’t know what happened to the lease that we had agreed upon.” 

Sebanc read the revised lease proposal, but said his attorney advised him not to sign and date it until he received an official copy. When Sebanc finally did receive the official contract, he said, it was six months too late to apply for the three-year lease extension. 

A letter from city officials to Sebanc said that his optometry shop, which has been open Monday through Friday from 1 to 8 p.m., was hurting the business of neighboring stores because it wasn’t open on Saturdays and thus was not drawing shoppers who might be attracted to visit other area stores on weekends. Additionally, one letter said, city officials want to “spruce up” the Sather Gate Mall by putting in more aesthetically pleasing storefronts. 

But some of Sebanc’s customers questioned why the city would single out the optometrist’s office under its renovation plans for the area. 

“The space two doors down has been vacant for four years,” area resident Rajeev Ranjan said. “Why don’t they focus on that rather than evicting longtime business owners?” 

Ranajan said he has been coming to Sebanc for 10 years. 

“He’s a great optometrist—really cares about his patients,” he said. “It’s a shame to see him go.” 

Sebanc said that upon learning of his eviction from his current office, he tried to secure a lease on the storefront two doors down, but found the city’s lease on the space was too expensive. 

“It was a slightly bigger store than what I have now,” he said. “But it was for $2,700 a month. In here I paid $1,000.” 

When he received an eviction notice last February, Sebanc sought legal help to challenge the ruling. He said he was surprised to see that he was being evicted because he had been told at a neighborhood association meeting just two weeks earlier that nobody would be evicted from their space. 

“Hallie Llamas [a capital planner with the city of Berkeley] came and told us to work out as a group what hours we would all be open,” Sebanc said. “Then I got the eviction notice and [City Manager Weldon] Rucker told me she didn’t have the authority to make that statement. If they had just gotten me the packet on time none of this would have happened.” 

Llamas and other capital planning staff members did not return phone calls seeking comment yesterday. The city manager’s office referred all calls to capital planning.