The B-Town Dollar Store at 2973 Sacramento St. could be closed if the Berkeley City Council decides to act on a recommendation passed by the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) Thursday.
ZAB members voted unanimously Thursday to recommend that B-Town should be closed as a public nuisance immediately. This was the first proceeding that was conducted under the new revocation and nuisance abatement procedures that the City Council adopted in March, which mandated that “ZAB is no longer required to determine whether to initiate proceedings, but need only hold a single public hearing and make a recommendation to the City Council.”
The property, which a ZAB staff report stated has been “associated with continuing illegal drug activity,” is owned by the Chul J. Kim family and is managed by the son, Joo H. Kim, a San Francisco police officer.
No one from the owner’s side was present at the ZAB hearing. B-Town is leased to Nayef Ayesh, who operates the discount storewith his wife and sons.
Gregory Daniel, head of the City of Berkeley Code Enforcement Division, told board members that the Berkeley Police Department (BPD) had originally pursued the nuisance designation in 2004 with the incorrect belief that a discretionary permit was required and had not been obtained for the retail use. However, since the Planning Department has concluded that this is not the case, he asked ZAB to recommend that the City Council order abatement by termination of use.
Daniel, along with five other officers from the BPD, testified about drug activity in and around B-Town from 2003 to February 21 of this year. The officers alleged that drug dealers were hanging out in front of the building and using it as a place to carry out drug transactions.
They added that after a series of discussions with the owners in 2004, the problem momentarily stopped, but that it began again in 2005 and has been going on ever since.
“We have had 55 contacts with drug dealers at B-Town,” said Daniel. “Eleven were convicted felons, 16 were involved in drug dealing and one was a known rapist. Ayesh’s own son Sammy was involved in drug dealing and was arrested twice.”
Ayesh and his wife Fatima told the board that they did their best to keep troublemakers away from the store.
“Sammy, he speaks to everyone,” said Fatima. “But I tell them to get away from the store. I try to keep the store as clean as possible.”
Ayesh told board members that his son Sammy had been moved to a different business last month because of the current problems.
Sergeant Spencer Fomby, a former beat officer and a drug task force officer in the neighborhood, said that drug dealers used B-Town as a “safe haven.”
“They stash their drugs in there,” he said. “We have received numerous complaints from Sacramento Street merchants and neighbors about drug-related activities, drinking, loitering and dice games. There are 15 to 20 drug dealers hanging out there at the same time. There are problems in the other stores on that street but not as much as B-Town. Most of the problems are generated there. It has become a nexus.”
Detective Chu of the BPD said that a narcotics search in the past had revealed residue of cocaine in the back room of B-Town.
Officer Pierantoni of the BPD said that the neighborhood watch groups in the area had refused to come and testify because they feared intimidation from the drug dealers.
“It is most shocking that none of the merchants or the neighbors from the neighborhood are here to testify because they are scared of oppression,” said ZAB board member Bob Allen. “It’s not a bunch of wallflowers out there but a group of hard-working individuals. When they say they are afraid, they are really afraid.”
Allen added that the neighborhood had a right to know what business would go in next after B-Town’s use permit was terminated.
Board member Terry Doran said that although he wanted to be sympathetic to the businesses that came into the neighborhood, B-Town was definitely a nuisance case.
“Why are there no records of phone calls to the police for help from the store?” asked ZAB chair Chris Tiedemann. “This kind of illegal pervasive behavior should not be allowed to take place.”
New ZAB appointee Suzanne Wilson said that the store’s failure to install video equipment inside the store to show what’s going on was very discouraging.
“The operators are saying that they don’t know anything about the drug activity, and yet there’s been no attempt to show the police that this kind of behavior is not taking place,” she said.
“The most striking thing to me is that the owners are saying there is nothing new they can do about the situation,” said ZAB vice-chair Rick Judd. “But what they have done so far is not enough.”
Board member Jesse Arreguin called B-Town a plague on the neighborhood and said he was concerned that the same problems might migrate to the other businesses once it was shut down.
“If it migrates, we migrate with them,” said Daniel.
• The board approved a request for modification of a use permit by MG Pacific, Inc., to change the use of an approved restaurant addition from a waiting area to a reception/cocktail lounge at Chester’s Bayview Cafe at 1508 Walnut St.
• The board approved a request for a use permit by Robert Gaustad of San Rafael to add wine and beer service and live entertainment to Bobby G’s at 2072 University Ave.
• The board approved a request for a use permit by Affordable Housing Associates to modify the plan approved by an earlier permit to remove four projecting bays on the south elevation, to vary open space dimensions and to replace the paving of the plaza along Ashby Avenue with asphalt at 1001 Ashby Ave.