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Filmmakers Say Wareham Rent Hikes May Destroy Community

By Judith Scherr
Friday March 02, 2007

More than four dozen writers, independent filmmakers, radio producers and technicians who tenant the seven-story tower at 10th and Parker streets are facing hefty rent hikes that could squeeze them out of Berkeley, said screenwriter Karen Folger Jacobs, an 18-year tenant at the Saul Zaentz Media Center, the only renter among several contacted by the Daily Planet willing to allow her name to be used for this story. 

Wareham Development of San Rafael, self-described as Berkeley’s largest commercial property investor and developer, recently paid more than $20 million for the 2.64 acre property. On Jan. 24, the day after the deal went through, Wareham immediately informed tenants there would be two or three-year leases that would include rent increases for most.  

Wareham has insisted on meeting individually with tenants and has asked for increases up to 100 percent, Jacobs said. 

“The situation is very tense here. We’re quite vulnerable,” one tenant, an independent film maker, told the Planet when reached by phone on Thursday, explaining why he could not allow his name to be used for this story. 

Tim Gallen, spokesperson for Wareham, said Wednesday that he knew nothing about rent increases in the building. He said he would try to get the information, but did not get back to the Daily Planet before deadline on Thursday. 

Wareham owns at least three other properties in Southwest Berkeley and others nearby in Emeryville.  

For most tenants in the building, their work is a labor of love that sometimes brings honors, such Sundance Film Festival prizes or nominations for Academy Awards, but brings in minimal cash. 

“It’s unlike anywhere in the country; it’s a center of social issue documentary,” said an anonymous tenant, noting there is a special collaboration among the tenants.  

When a film editor is needed, a fellow tenant can often find the person, perhaps between films, in need of picking up an extra job. Or when someone needs a critical eye on a rough cut of a film, she will invite a neighbor over for an opinion, said another tenant. 

Jacobs said during the time the Wareham purchase was going through, she had talked to Mayor Tom Bates at a social gathering about possible rent increases. “He had told me there would be no rent increases. He said if there are, we should come to him,” Jacobs said. 

On Wednesday a group of tenants met with Councilmember Linda Maio and Mayoral Aide Calvin Fong. Fong did not return calls before deadline. 

Maio told the Daily Planet on Thursday that in the long term, she thought tenants should organize themselves as a nonprofit and buy a building, perhaps with the city’s help.  

But tenants say it’s not clear that they can last in the building long enough to save their community. 

About two years ago, perhaps in preparation for the property sale, tenants got large rent increases from the previous landlord. “I’m now paying 75 percent more rent than I did in April 2005,” one tenant told the Planet. 

“After receiving a new lease proposal with a large rent increase, one 25-year veteran of the building wrote back to Wareham questioning his ability to sign a lease with such a large increase, but expressing his desire to stay. In response he received a 30-day eviction notice,” said a written statement sent to the Planet by one of the tenants. 

Some complained that the new owners were in the midst of construction projects for which the tenants got little or no notice. Wareham spokesperson Gallen said the construction is positive. The building “needs a lot of work,” he said, noting that the owners want to make the building “the soul of a new entertainment/technology district” that would stretch to Emeryville’s Pixar Animation Studios and include enterprises such as those which use and those who produce, for example, digital-sound engineering.  

Wareham also owns:  

• a 38,000 square-foot property at 800 and 830 Heinz St. that once served as the headquarters for Durkee Famous Foods; the development includes live-work units and a childcare facility.  

• an office building at 2910 Seventh St. whose tenants are Xoma, Ltd and Bayer Healthcare. 

• a property at 2929 Seventh Street that houses Dynavax Technologies, a Wells Fargo Bank and the Wooden Duck, a furniture builder/restorer. 

Wareham gave $10,000 to the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce Political Action Committee, contributing to the successful effort to defeat Measure J, an initiative that would have made it more difficult to demolish or remodel landmarked buildings.  

Arguing for city help to keep rents affordable in the building, one tenant pointed to the mayor’s State of the City address in which he praised the local arts scene and named a number of prize-winning films created by tenants of the 10th Street Building. Among them are Academy Award nominations: Berkeley in the 60s, Complaints of a Dutiful Daughters, Promises; and Sundance Grand Jury Prize winners: Freedom on My Mind, Daughter from Danang and Long Nights Journey into Day.