He’s a soft-spoken man with a relaxed manner, an open smile and a gentle handshake—the perfect temperament for a developer tackling a landmarked Berkeley building.
But if he wanted to, he could kick your ass.
Besides being the 40-year-old builder who is restoring a Telegraph Avenue mainstay, David Clahan is a master of the martial arts. Before tackling the vacant Gorman Furniture Building, his last project was the Ralph Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy at the northeast corner of Ashby Avenue and Sacramento Street.
For the last 11 years, Clahan has been a student of Brazilian-born Gracie, and he’s now an instructor at the new Berkeley academy and the holder of an impressive collection of titles in his own right.
Judging by the experience of other builders, one might think a fighter’s skills would be helpful in dealing with all the potential hurdles, but Clahan says folks have been but nothing but helpful at every turn.
The builder/fighter bought the historic furniture building at the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Parker Street from Ali Kashani, a former affordable housing developer who’s now entered the ranks of for-profit development.
“He warned me again and again when I was buying the property,” said Clahan, “but the landmarks people have been very helpful.”
It was Kashani who sold Clahan the building after abandoning his own plans for the structure.
As work on the venerable wood frame structure at 2599 Telegraph nears completion, Clahan’s already won the praises of Leslie Emmington, the member of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) who has probably voted “no” on more projects than any of her other fellow commissioners.
Indeed, as Emmington and fellow LPC member reviewed the latest draft of Clahan’s plans outside the building Monday, she was encouraging him to tackle yet another Berkeley landmark-in-the-making a few blocks away.
“You’ve really done a wonderful job,” she told the builder. “It’s really been a pleasure.”
When it’s all done—hopefully in time for the back-to-school housing rush later next month—the J. Gorman & Son Building will be restored to its former glory, though all that remains of the original will be the siding.
Among the restorations he’d bring is the long-vanished “witch’s cap,” the tipi-shaped roof atop the turret over the building’s main entrance at the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Parker Street.
That cheerful architectural fillip was lost in a remodeling, and the restoration will give the building a distinctive Victorian touch.
Also returning will be the long-vanished transom windows over the ground floor windows of the two commercial spaces, adding yet another touch of elegance.
The J. Gorman & Son Building meets both definitions of a landmark. While the official legal status was bestowed in December 2000, Gorman had been a Berkeley cultural landmark since 1876, when Irish immigrant John Gorman opened his furniture and upholstery business.
In 1906 the corner store expanded further north on Telegraph Avenue, and the business remained a Berkeley mainstay through three generations of Gormans until Chuck and Andrea Rosenberg bought the business in 1996.
The Gormans sold the building itself to Kashani and architect Kava Massih in 2001.
In September 2003, the Rosenbergs moved the furniture business to 3400 Broadway in Oakland, ending a Berkeley run of 127 years.
Kashani and Massih later abandoned their plans for refurbishing the structure.
“I got the impression that the scope of work was beyond their intentions, but because I do a lot of the work myself, I thought I could handle it,” Clahan said. He hired Massih’s architectural firm to draw up plans for the project.
“I loved it from the moment I first saw it. It was like a diamond in the rough, ready to come out. And it really wasn’t so bad, considering some of the projects I’ve handled,” he said.
Clahan was eager to tackle a new project. He’d recently sold one of his earlier projects, and he needed to plow the profits back into a new building or face a sizable capital gains hit.
Besides the complications posed by additional levels of review, the building’s landmark status offered one clear advantage: the chance to use the state Historic Building Code, which eases some rules to allow developers to restore officially designated in a more cost-efficient manner.
Clahan learned the building business from the top down.
“I started out as a roofer, and worked my way into real estate,” he said. He formed his own company, bought and restored some investment properties, selling the company in 1994.
“Every year I try to buy a couple of buildings and work on them,” he said. “I like to move up a level when I do.”
He’s renovated quite a few homes, occupying many of them for a time. He lives in Albany with his spouse and their 12-year-old daughter. Before that he lived in Berkeley.
He has done commercial projects before, but Gorman’s is the biggest structure he’s ever tackled. “It’s not the most complex, though,” he adds.
By the time the last paint has dried and the final finishing touches are in place, the old/new furniture building will offer something perhaps unique in Berkeley—the only apartment building around that offers three- and four-bedroom apartments, two of each, ranging in size from 1,100 to 1,500 square feet each.
And if all goes as planned, they’ll be ready to rent when students and teachers return for the fall semester.
He’s already signed up one tenant for the northernmost of the two commercial space. Krishna Copy will be moving down from another landmark further up the street, the Mrs. Edmund P. King Building at 2501 Telegraph Ave.
For the second space, he envisions a cafe or coffee shop—though doing so would require a zoning change.
Asked just how many projects Clahan has tackled to date, the modest builder says he can only estimate. “This may be number 50,” he said.
“I’m going to take some time off,” he said.Ã