Public Comment

Commentary: Fantasy Building Rent Hikes Threaten a Valuable Community

By Rick Goldsmith
Tuesday March 27, 2007

Regarding the current battle at the Fantasy Building, where its new owner, San Rafael-based Wareham Property Group, is threatening Berkeley’s community of independent filmmakers with skyrocketing rents and odious-termed leases: 

Chris Barlow of Wareham had the nerve to stand up before the Berkeley City Council last Tuesday and falsely state that Wareham’s proposed 40-100 percent rent increases would “bring rents up to market level” after years of the filmmakers benefiting from the “patronage” of former building owner Saul Zaentz. Hogwash. I am a filmmaker who has rented office and editing space in the Fantasy building for the past 16 years. These are the facts: 

In early 2005, the standard room with a window in the Fantasy Building was renting for $2 per square foot, which was at or slightly above market level at the time. In May 2005, in preparation for the sale of the building, rents for those same rooms were raised across the board, to $3 per square foot for some of the rooms—a 50 percent increase—and $3.25 for others—a 63 percent increase. Today, the proposed rent increases by Wareham, to begin April 1, bump those already inflated rents, in steps, to (at a minimum) 10 percent, then 25 percent, then 40 percent, and (Wareham’s increases seem to be arbitrary) for some to as much as 100 percent of what they are now, all in as few as 18 months. The new 2008 rates would reach $4.06-$6.08 per square foot. Is this “up to market level” as Barlow claims? More like double or triple. Current market rate for similar space in West Berkeley runs about $1.50-$2 per square foot. 

Why don’t we all just move if the rates are so far above market? We will have to if the situation doesn’t change. But what we are trying to do is to keep our unique and close-knit community together. Among us, we are writers, editors, producers, directors, camerapeople, sound artists, radio producers and a non-profit agency providing media and advocacy for the deaf. We trade resources and equipment, give each other feedback on rough-cuts, provide sound design, mixing, narration and graphic design, re-write and critique, and collaborate in ways too many to mention. It is not an accident that 14 Oscar-nominated documentary films were produced by our Fantasy community, from Berkeley in the Sixties to Daughter from Danang, from Freedom on My Mind to Forever Activists: Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Our productions regularly appear at Sundance and other prestigious film festivals, win Cine Eagle, Peabody and Emmy awards and get national TV exposure, including two American Experience PBS broadcasts in the next three weeks. 

If we are forced to disperse, Berkeley will lose a valuable community, one that has put Berkeley on the filmmaking map with the nation’s leading social-issue documentaries. We will look for a new home together, but may well have to settle on little enclaves, perhaps in Emeryville, Oakland, El Cerrito, Richmond or San Francisco. The collaborative juice—the heart of our filmmaking community—would be diminished.  

And it would be a black eye for Berkeley. What a shame to see that happen just because one out-of-town developer wants to make a buck. We need the help and support of Berkeley’s city government as well as the people of Berkeley to ensure that does not happen.  

A special session of the Berkeley City Council has been called by mayor Tom Bates to deal with this issue at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 27. Join us there. 


Rick Goldsmith is a Berkeley filmmaker.