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Arson Fires Strike South Berkeley

Judith Scherr
Friday May 12, 2006

A string of arson and suspicious fires has plagued a normally quiet South Berkeley neighborhood since Monday, causing jitters among residents in the area around Shattuck Avenue and the Ashby BART Station. 

At about 11:30 p.m. Monday night a fire blackened a controversial and blighted building, known as the “flying cottage,” under remodeling at the corner of Essex Street and Shattuck Avenue, causing $350,000 in damage. 

Around the same time, a small fire at the Ashby BART station was quickly extinguished. At first, firefighters thought it might have been caused by a spark from the Shattuck Avenue fire, but, given the other recent fires, the department will be looking at this one as possibly suspicious, said Deputy Fire Chief David Orth. 

Firefighters are also looking at a couch set on fire Monday evening around 10 p.m. near the “Here/There” sculpture on the Berkeley-Oakland border near where Martin Luther King, Jr. Way intersects with Adeline Street. 

Then at around 12:30 a.m. Thursday morning another int entionally set fire at 1912 Essex Street sent its four residents running to the safety of the street. The house where tenant Kathy Zitani and her family had lived for 18 years suffered $100,000 in damages and a loss of about $30,000 in contents, Orth sai d. 

And at around the same time, a cut-down pine tree on the Ashby BART’s east parking lot was set ablaze. “It was intentionally set,” Orth said. 

Monday’s two-alarm blaze at 3054 Shattuck Ave., reported at 11:28 p.m., burned for about an hour and requir e d 30 fire personnel, five engines and two trucks. 

The mostly boarded-up building, owned by Christina Sun, who resides in Berkeley and Pasadena, had been raised from almost two to three stories several years ago and renamed the “flying cottage” by detra cto rs, who prefer the original cottage-like version of the house that now sits atop the boxlike unfinished structure beneath it. 

“The building had fire damage to all three levels,” Orth said, noting that firefighters took the roof apart when they put th e fi re out. “Actually, the structure itself is in a pretty good state.” 

Orth explained that the boarded-up partly-finished structure was listed with the city as a “problem property.” 

He said he thought it was inspected regularly by the city. However, M ic hael Kaplan of the city’s Neighborhood Services Division said the property hadn’t been looked at for a year by the Problem Property Team. 

The remodeling project was halted in June 2003 after some neighbors objected, claiming that Sun intended to h ouse mo re than a single family in the structure in violation of the permit. The house has remained boarded up since then. 

Calling the timing of the fire “interesting,” Mark Rhoades, land-use planning manager with the city, said a building permit was approve d on Fr iday. 

However, due to the fire, the permit will not be issued until the extent of the damage is determined. “It will continue to be an eyesore,” he said. 

On Tuesday, after looking at her damaged house a second time that day, Sun met with a repor ter on t he porch of neighbor Denise Brown. They were soon joined by another neighbor, Ava Jourdain, who has been adamantly opposed to Sun’s renovation. 

Brown said she does not count herself among the die-hard opponents of Sun’s project. She was gr ateful tha t Sun had come by early that morning to make sure the fire hadn’t damaged her home. Brown says she understands many of the neighborhood concerns, yet she communicates well with Sun.  

With the blackened building as a backdrop, Sun wanted to spe ak mor e abo ut the project than about the fire. 

“Most of the neighbors instantly feel like the project will change the neighborhood,” Sun said. “Even though the plans were legal, (neighbors) got very unhappy.” 

Sun said that Berkeley zoning allowed raising th e buil ding on Shattuck, a commercial corridor, despite the fact that it bordered on two residences. She said that’s why there were no mandatory public hearings. 

“I’ve not really talked to people,” Sun said, explaining that she had her architect and engi neers d o the talking for her. “People have prejudged the idea. Their goal was to stop the development. It doesn’t matter who I am. I am the enemy.” 

She said she is in the process of complying with requirements the city imposed so that she can f inish the project, inc luding professional landscaping and re-engineering to comply with new earthquake safety standards. “The requirements are a lot stricter,” she said. 

Sun was visibly frustrated. “I’ve lost so much money. I could walk away from it,” s he said. “If I kn ew thi s much earlier, I wouldn’t have done it.” 

Jourdain responded, “Please walk away from it.” 

Directing her anger at the Planning Department and zoning laws, Jourdain said, “The process should not have excluded us. There are lessons learned for every one. Ju st because commercial is so close to residences, they shouldn’t dismiss the neighbors—that’s what the Planning Department did.” 

“Maybe the neighbors will pay my costs,” Sun said, challenging Jourdain. “You’ve got to respect my rights. E veryone ha s different views. This is a democracy.” 

“But democracy includes everyone having a voice,” Jourdain said. 

In an earlier interview, Brown talked about being awakened by someone at the door Monday night. She believed someone was breaking into the house, but soon realized the corner house was ablaze. 

Brown has had ongoing concerns about the property. 

“People had been staying in the house,” she said, adding that she had talked to Sun about the squatters and Sun said she asked police to patrol the house. Also, Br own said, grass had grown tall around the house, but Sun had it cut down on Sunday.  

“I knew it was going to happen,” Brown said of the fire, noting there had been “a little grass fire” the previous summer. 

The owner fenced off the h ouse after that, she said. 


House Fire on Essex 

Thursday morning, Kathy Zitani looked at the badly burned house she and her family had lived in for 18 years. She had been awakened in the early-morning hours by someone screaming from the street, “Fire! fi re!” “I could have died,” she said.  

“We were all safe in the house. My daughter was on the computer. My husband was asleep,” she said. “I want my home back. I have no place to live.”