Lacking the authority to keep more than two dozen tenants in their West Berkeley live/work complex that city officials have declared a fire hazard, the City Council Tuesday urged the residents of the Drayage Warehouse to comply with an April 15 evacuation order.
“You’ve got to realize it’s time to move,” Mayor Tom Bates told them. Many are artisans who have lived in the building for more than a decade. “You really need to move.”
If the tenants aren’t out by April 15, building owner Lawrence White faces a $2,500-a-day fine from the city. Although City Manager Phil Kamlarz pledged not to send in police to remove tenants, he said the residents too may be fined if they don’t leave on their own accord.
In other matters, the council lowered condominium conversion fees and delayed votes on allowing UC Berkeley to build a pedestrian bridge over Hearst Avenue and charging the university more than $2 million for use of the city’s sewer system.
Drayage tenants told city officials not to expect a mass exodus this week.
“A lot of people will not be gone on the 15th, it’s just not enough time,” said Claudia Viera, a tenant.
Last weekend, the tenants and White signed an unofficial agreement whereby they could remain until June 1 and White would begin exclusive negotiations with the Northern California Land Trust to purchase the property, bring it up to code and give tenants the right to return.
Several councilmembers lauded the proposal, but under state law, city Fire Marshal David Orth has ultimate authority to enforce code violations and he refused to recognize the pact.
“That’s not what we’re asking for,” Orth said. “This is a very serious life threatening problem. I don’t want there to be false hope that June 1 is OK.”
A fire inspection last month found more than 250 code violations at the illegal residential warehouse located at Third and Addison streets.
Its hands tied, the council voted unanimously to recommend that the city forgive landlord fines if tenants are out by April 19 and to keep the item on its agenda for its next meeting in case there are new developments. City officials also said they would expedite the permit process for building upgrades if the land trust bought the property.
“I wish we could give them more time,” said Councilmember Darryl Moore, whose district includes the Drayage. “The fact that the tenants and owner had worked on the June 1 date, that seemed very reasonable to me.”
Outside the council chamber Orth told tenants that two other possibly illegal live/work spaces in West Berkeley had recently come to the fire department’s attention.
“We are going to address this issue over and over again,” he said, complimenting the tenants’ effort to bring the building up to code and maintain it as an artisan community. “You may suffer losses in this battle, but this is a war that you might ultimately win.”
The impromptu discussion turned heated when the subject turned to property owner White.
“He hasn’t acted in good faith as far as we’re concerned,” said city building official Joan McQuarrie. She faulted White for not evicting tenants and sending them off with an adequate relocation package instead of paying over $1,000 a day for fire safety officers, mandated by the city.
White’s Attorney Don Jelinek responded that the landlord didn’t evict the tenants for the same reason the city won’t. “They don’t want a Waco-type action,” he said.
Jelinek faulted city officials for not considering the human element of the situation, to which Orth shot back: “I’m not about to risk lives for your altruistic views. I have a responsibility and I’m going to protect people.”
“We’re trying to be reasonable,” McQuarrie said. “I hear you pushing us into a corner. When I hear you say ‘a Waco-type action’ that is inflammatory.” She added of White: “He doesn’t put his best foot forward by hiding behind his attorney. He needs to present his case.”
Although White has aligned himself with tenants, Maresa Danielsen, a tenant, said part of her motivation in wanting to stay past April 15 was to make sure the building wasn’t vacant, which would give White more negotiating leverage with potential buyers.
“The value of the building will shoot up a bunch with no tenants,” she said. “Our bargaining power goes down if we leave. Once you’re out it’s hard to get back in.”
The council voted Tuesday to remove its restrictions on tenancies in common and reduce fees to convert rental units to condominiums. If the council approves a second reading of the measure next week, conversion fees will be capped at 10 percent of the sale price of a unit until October. With the average condo now fetching $500,000, the fee will average about $50,000 a unit. The council will reconsider the issue in the fall to craft a long-term policy.
Reducing condo fees marks a change in long-standing city policy to preserve rental units. The previous conversion formula was devised to remove all financial incentive to turn rental space into condos.
The change stems from a state appeals court ruling last year striking down a San Francisco law restricting tenancies in common. City Attorney Manuela Alburquerque has written that the ruling applies to Berkeley as well. In 1992 Berkeley imposed severe restrictions on tenancies in common, which it viewed as an undesirable form of home ownership.
Tenancies in common have been considered risky investments because shareholders do not hold title to specific units as they do for condominiums. City councilmembers said they hope that by making condominiums more attractive, property owners will be dissuaded from forming tenancies in common which give them greater latitude to evict tenants.
At the request of Mayor Bates, the council agreed to postpone until April 26 a vote on billing UC Berkeley $2.18 million for use of the city’s sewer system. City Manager Kamlarz said the city was continuing to negotiate with the university over sewer fees. Currently, UC Berkeley pays $470,000 annually under a 15-year agreement set to expire at the end of June.
Before the council voted to delay the issue, UC attorney Jason Houghton, of Thelen Rein & Priest, reiterated the UC Regents’ position that the sewer fee would be illegal and that the university would not pay. In response Berkeley resident Steve Wollmer said that the council should charge the university nevertheless.
“They may have lawyers who can cite chapter and verse, but we have justice on our side,” he said.
The council also delayed a vote on Foothill Bridge for two weeks. The pedestrian walkway proposed to join two UC Berkeley dormitories over Hearst Avenue has sparked controversy. The university says the bridge is needed to make the Foothill Dormitory more accessible to wheelchair users and safer for student pedestrians. Some Berkeley residents argue that the bridge won’t be enough to make the dorms attractive to disabled students and that the $200,000 offered by the university is not enough for the city to surrender its air rights above Hearst.
“If UC wants accessible housing they need to build it in accessible areas,” said Wendy Alfsen, noting that the university built Foothill near the top of a steep hill rather than in a more level part of the city.
In response, Tim Perry, a former Planning Commissioner, said, “Basically we’re telling disabled people who go to the university to get on the back of the bus. The university seems to be the only party in the room that recognizes the rights of disabled people.”
Tom Lolini, UC Berkeley’s assistant vice chancellor of capital projects, said he knew of one disabled person living in the section of Foothill that currently is accessible to wheelchair users.ô