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Artists Plead for City Help to Fight Rent Hikes

By Judith Scherr
Friday March 23, 2007

The last time Rick Goldsmith stood before the City Council was in 1996, when he was honored for an award-winning documentary film. 

But Tuesday night, when he addressed the council, it was to plead for help fighting powerful landlord Rich Robbins of San Rafael-based Wareham Develop-ment, who recently bought the seven-story building at 2600 Tenth St., and wants to jack up rents 40-to-100 percent over two-to-three years.  

“Our community is under siege,” Goldsmith told the  


In its regular business, the council approved a design contract for a warm water pool on the high school parking lot, made overnight parking on Frontage Road north of Emeryville a violation, put off a decision whether to appeal a property at 2701 Shattuck Ave and set a date to decide on a process to write a sunshine ordinance. 


Artists fight for workspace 

Standing behind Goldsmith as he addressed the council were more than a dozen other artists—mostly award-winning documentary filmmakers like him—many of whom have rented space for two decades or more in what is often called the Fantasy Building. There are some 50 filmmakers, writers and radio programmers who rent space in the building. 

The artists were asking for council help to pressure the powerful developer of some dozen properties in West Berkeley and Emeryville—many of them housing biotech companies—to modify the proposed rent increases, or minimally, to delay imposition of the steep increases for a year. 

Because the matter was not on the council agenda, councilmembers were not permitted to act on the request, but have scheduled a special meeting next Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. to address the question.  

They will likely decide to write a letter to Rich Robbins of Wareham, said Councilmember Linda Maio, speaking by phone to the Planet on Wednesday. Maio has met with the artists’ group several times over the last month. She and Mayor Tom Bates met with them on Monday and suggested they speak publicly at the council meeting Tuesday. 

“We didn’t know we had this treasure,” Maio said. While the artists work as individuals, they often consult with one another, both formally—they sometimes edit one another’s work—and informally as neighbors. 

“They don’t make much money,” Maio said. “We value our arts and want to do everything we can to assist them.”  

The developer insists on negotiating with each tenant separately. “The provisions [in the leases that have been offered] are very onerous,” Maio said, noting that some of the rents were as high as $5 per square feet. 

A glance at realtor Norheim & Yost’s website shows studio work spaces available for $1.50 per square foot at 2117 Fourth St.; Korman & Eng are advertising a large space zoned for light industrial or artist studios at $1.75 per square foot at 800 Bancroft Way. 

Representing Wareham, Chris Barlow also spoke at the council meeting. Objecting to those who had called Wareham an “out of town developer,” he said the company had been developing property in Berkeley for 30 years and should be considered part of the community.  

He explained the rent increases: “There’s a severe need for restoration,” he said. The building is being upgraded for fire safety, among other renovations. (Tenants complain that they were not consulted about what improvements they’d like to seen in the building.) 

“We’ve offered compromises,” Barlow told the council. Most people received letters saying Wareham needed signed leases by March 31, while letters to others required a decision by March 16. 

Barlow offered the tenants a reprieve of sorts. “We’re prepared to extend for 30 days [for them] to figure out and digest our proposals,” he said, adding that the tenants would have to pay a 10 percent increase in the short term. He then added a caveat to his proposal, saying that the extension was available “to those people who come to us and put a convincing argument before us.” 

Maio said the ultimate solution is for the artists to get together and buy their own building—but they need a significant amount of time to do that.  

In the meantime, Maio said, “We’re asking for a modest rent increase —10 percent—for a year, or at least six months so that they have some real time to figure out what they want to do,” she said. “Rich [Robbins] needs to help us get there,” she said. 

At the council meeting, Maio said Wareham should allow the tenants six months, but Barlow responded: “Six months it too long. We’ve already given them February and March.” 

After speaking to the council and listening to Barlow’s response, Goldsmith told the Planet: “We have a gun to our head. Chris’ talk tonight shows that Wareham doesn’t want to work with us.” 

Other tenants told the Planet they fear they are being deliberately pushed out. 

During the meeting Councilmember Dona Spring asked the city manager for a report on West Berkeley zoning and how the zoning might affect the Fantasy Building. Artists are given rent protection under the West Berkeley Plan, and cannot be asked to pay the equivalent of other kinds of office space or laboratory rent, she told the Planet on Thursday. 

The city is hiring a city planner to look at zoning issues in West Berkeley, according to Planning Director Dan Marks. 


Warm-water pool design contract 

In regular council business, the council approved a $125,000 contract 7-2 to do preliminary design work on a new warm-water pool, intended to give the council information on the full cost of building the pool in part of the high school parking lot on the east side of Milvia Street. Councilmembers Gordon Wozniak and Laurie Capitelli voted to oppose the contract. 

The city needs the information before it can go to the voters and private donors to ask for their support for the project. 

Councilmember Gordon Wozniak argued against the measure, which would be paid for with funds already set aside for the purpose, saying the city should heat existing outdoor pools or use a heated YMCA pool.  

And Councilmember Laurie Capitelli said the city has other “enormous, compelling needs.” 

Councilmember Dona Spring, the prime advocate for the pool on the council, called the arguments against the contract “an effort to once again sabotage warm water pool users.”  

The YMCA pool is used by people with multiple sclerosis for whom the ideal pool temperature is around 80 degrees, lower than that needed by disabled and elderly community who use the warm pool, Spring said. 

“If staff thought there were a viable alternative, they would have come forward,” Councilmember Linda Maio said. 


New laws punish bad hosts 

The council approved a two-part alcohol policy, designed to punish those who serve alcohol to underage people at parties and those responsible for loud and unruly parties. Both passed 7-1 with Worthington in opposition and Olds absent. 

The “second response ordinance” would fine responsible parties for the second and following offenses within a 120-day period, when police respond to complaints about loud or unruly parties.  

The “social host” ordinance penalizes hosts “who know or reasonably should know that minors are consuming alcohol.” 

When people report problems to police themselves, they are exempt from the fines. 


In other matters 

• The council delayed until next week an appeal by neighbors of a 24-unit building proposed for 2701 Shattuck Ave. During the discussion of the proposed five-story building, Councilmember Betty Olds said the requirement for the building to have commercial space did not make sense. “Why are we so tied to commercial on the ground floor?” she asked, noting the large number of empty retail spaces. The decision was delayed because the developer had gotten in an automobile accident on the way to the meeting. 

• The council voted unanimously to prohibit overnight parking on Frontage Road in the area north of the Emeryville border where car-dwellers often spend the night. Health concerns were sited in a staff report. 

• The council decided 6-0-1, with Wozniak abstaining and Olds and Capitelli having left the meeting, to create a process for writing a sunshine ordinance to enhance the state’s open meeting laws. 

The decision follows a council workshop on the question of making government more transparent. Suggestions for the ordinance included: 

• making the law applicable to task forces and other bodies designated by the council to do work on city policy; 

• making materials related to agenda items available in a timely way; 

• clearly stating rules for public comment; 

• having the ordinance overseen by a neutral body; 

• having public hearings at a time certain. 

The local League of Women Voters chapter will be involved in a public process that will lead to creation of an ordinance. Experts such as attorney Terry Franke of Californians Aware, will be involved as will Mark Schlossberg of the American Civil Liberties Union. (The Planet will report more on the Sunshine workshop Tuesday.)