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Pagodas? on Telegraph?

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday August 14, 2007

Eclectic Building Plan Certain to Stir Up Plenty of Free Speech 


If he gets his way, Ken Sarachan will revolutionize Telegraph Avenue. 

And if he doesn’t accomplish anything else, the plans he’s shown to city officials, calling for a pagoda-bedecked architectural extravaganza on the vacant lot at Telegraph and Haste Street, has set tongues wagging. 

“They’re something, “said Greg Powell, the city’s principal planner assigned to shepherd the project. 

“But it’s an incomplete submittal,” he said, “and we are not prepared to act until he submits a whole bunch of stuff.” 

“I haven’t really looked closely at them,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington, whose district includes Telegraph Avenue. “I’m not sure what to say.” 

But if Ken Sarachan has his way, the pagodas will crown “Berkeley’s greenest building,” housing businesses on the first floor, a Free Speech Movement museum on the mezzanine, a grassy rooftop park doubling as a venue for live entertainment and public events, and a collection of pagodas accommodating a restaurant and what could become Berkeley’s most unique apartments. 

He calls it the Free Speech and Architectural Expression Building, “the Free Speech Building for short.”  

It’s certain to cause plenty of both speech and expression, not unfamiliar occurrences to a man who first cast eyes on The Avenue when he transferred to Berkeley from the University of Toronto in 1970—when Berkeley was boiling over at President Richard Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia. 


Buildings, builder 

Sarachan’s plans cover a long-vacant northeast corner and the site now occupied by the landmarked 1876 John Woolley House at 2509 Haste, which Sarachan has acquired from the previous owner, UC Berkeley. 

His bold vision comes at a time when Telegraph Avenue has been struggling with both an identity crisis and mounting economic worries. 

As founder of the Rasputin Music and Blondie’s Pizza chains and the owner of two other buildings on The Avenue, Sarachan ranks as the avenue’s preeminent entrepreneur, as well as something of a character. 

“He’s always amusing,” said Worthington. 

Asked if he thought the project was serious, Berkeley Principal Planner Gregg Powell, the city official designated to oversee the permitting process, didn’t hesitate. “He knows how to get things built,” he said. 

Sarachan rehabilitated the Rasputin’s building at 2304 Telegraph and what he calls “an ode to steel and glass—the Deco/Modern glass and stainless temple of commerce at the southwest corner of Telegraph and Durant that currently houses Bear Basics, Futura clothing and a basement-level T-Shirt Orgy. 

For his third project, “my first thought was to build a really modern kind of building which would involve modern technology and ideas,” he said. “But then I got the idea that what Telegraph really needed was a mystical building, and a mystical building is built on a myth, and a myth has a story behind it, a legend.” 

Finding inspiration in amateur British historian Gavin Menzies’s controversial 1421: The Year China Discovered America, Sarachan tells the story of shipwrecked Chinese sailors who explored the Southwest, then settled in Berkeley, intermarrying with local tribesfolk and creating their own village, a fusion of Asian design and Native American motifs. 

For what he called “my third and final building,” he chose architect Robert McGillis of the Emeryville firm of Philip A. Banta both because they’d worked together on an earlier Telegraph and Haste project, and because he’d been spurned by other local architects. 


Exuberant plans 

A quick glimpse at Sarachan’s exuberant plans reveals a phantasmagorical scheme, crowned by two 65-foot-tall pagodas marking the two corners facing Haste. It’s certain to draw both attention and more bodies to the legendary street. 

A single commercial floor covers all of the property, Sarachan said, “and I imagine we’ll have two or three tenants.” 

A ramp and the smaller mezzanine floor that it reaches will house a Free Speech Museum. “We have collected over 5,000 artifacts for it,” he said. Exhibits, including books, films, posters, journals, “Communist Party cards and other ephemera,” and will cover Berkeley’s radical history “from the turn of the 20th century up to the 1980s.” 

“It will be marketed like a museum, and we’ll have a computerized data base for research,” he said. 

But it’s what lies above, rising from a central grass-covered park-like central gathering place—complete with a flowing stream arising from atop an artificial hillside—that’s certain to draw the most eyes and spark the most spirited conversations. 

Above the grassy sward to the east and west are two artificial and landscaped ridgelines, broken by airy, ornamented pagodas, joined at the northern end by a temple-like building. 

In realty, the ridges hide apartments, as well as a restaurant dining room with three tall mullioned windows overlooking the Telegraph street scene. The eatery’s kitchen occupies most of the “temple’s” ground floor. 

“The unique feature is that the upper structures are based on a trapezoid rather than a box,” Sarachan said. “That makes it possible to create a hillside.” 

The pagodas, as well as the upper floors of the temple, will house more apartments, most with windows on three of their four walls, and all with movable wall panels allowing internal space to be configured to the tenant’s desires. “It’s like a loft in that respect,” he said. “They’ll be able to decide on how many bedrooms they want, or if they want to leave it open.” 

The only open vista is found on Haste, where the courtyard overlooks the street between the two four-story pagoda towers that anchor the ends of the eastern and western ersatz ridgelines. 

The commercial base structure will be concrete construction, Sarachan said, while the upper structures will be made of lighter material, incorporating “a lot of wood, tile and glass, and carved wood on the exterior. 

Plans call for the housing to be about 90 percent complete when tenants move in, with the skills for the artistry and craftwork of the finish—including tile work and railing ornamentation—to come from the pagoda-dwellers themselves. 


Green scheme  

The Telegraph Avenue entrepreneur acknowledges that the full implementation of his plans could be expensive, especially when he promises to erect “the greenest building ever in Berkeley.” 

“It’s going to cost way too much, and I’m looking for co-investors who want to lose a lot of money for sure,” he quips. “So far I haven’t found any.” 

As his first mixed-use development, Sarachan’s proposal calls for something quite different from what he calls the basic boxes built in Berkeley in recent years. 

“Sometimes the box has another section that’s cantilevered out three or four feet and painted in different colors,” he said, “and maybe there’re some other architectural enhancements. But they’re all boxes.” 

A key element in greening the building is the grassy plaza that occupies the central area of the roof. “The U-shape with the opening to the south is the best way of getting warmth and maximum sunlight for the residential tenants,” he said. 

“There’s also no better insulation than soil. It’s cool in the summer and warm in the winter,” he said. The soil itself will vary in depths between three and eight inches, except for pockets where greater depths are need for trees. 

The ridges themselves will feature hundreds of species of native California plantings. “Basically,” he said, “it’s a botanical garden.” 

Green materials will also be used for construction. “It will be green,” he said, “Although the way that word is used in television ads by companies like BP [the former British Petroleum] and [corporate agriculture giant] ADM, I’ve decided to be blue instead.” 


Rooftop venue 

The concept for the project arose “because I’ve had tremendous affection for Telegraph Avenue for 35 years,” Sarachan said, “but my affection for The Avenue and all its issues and attributes has been diminishing of late. I care a little bit less than I did a few years ago.” 

A lack of spontaneity and the complexities of getting permits, arranging for streets closures and other red tape has restricted street fairs on The Avenue. 

“Since the decline of commerce began, basically in the last five years, I have tried to organize closures of the street on weekends, and I’ve tried to organize book fairs, spring and Easter festivals and other events, but there have always been problems with organization, insurance, bathrooms, paying for the police—it’s been hard to get things accomplished. 

“The way it is now, two festivals a year—the Christmas Fair and the World Music Festival—do not sustain the avenue for the other 50 weeks. Telegraph needs some sort of attraction,” especially given the decline in book and music stores and The Avenue’s vacant storefronts. 

“So I want to do something with a little flare, with special events to bring in business for the stores and the street vendors. We’ll do a lot of advertising for special events, and I think I have the expertise to make that possible,” he said. 


Site history 

A city document prepared by staff nine years ago described the site’s troubled past: 

For decades, the now-vacant property had housed the Berkeley Inn, a single-room-occupancy hotel catering to low-income residents. Two fires, one in 1986, which gutted 77 units, and another in 1990, destroyed the building. 

The city demolished the ruins following the last fire, and after repeated efforts to collect the costs from the owner, Sutter Land and Development Co. Inc., filed liens which were sustained through a series of lawsuits. 

The city next tried to buy the site in partnership with the nonprofit Resources for Community Development (RCD), formulating a plan which called for 39 units to be built, 32 of them reserved for low-income tenants, with ground floor retail space for Amoeba Music. 

That plan died with the election of Mayor Shirley Dean, who objected to the high unit costs and the use of $3 million in public funds, half from the city Housing Trust Fund. 

When RCD’s option expired, Sarachan bought the site for $800,000 and assumed the liens. 

After a series of attempts to develop the property with help from city housing funds and plans that called for a significant number of low-income units, Sarachan told the City Council in 1997 that the economics would work out. 

After the Telegraph Area Association urged development of the site together with the possible lot occupied by the landmarked John Woolley House, then-City Manager Weldon Rucker ordered staff to prepare plans for a mixed-use development. 

A year later, city staff suggested waiving the liens to spur Sarachan into action, though it took nearly five years before a final agreement was adopted in February 2003, setting Sept. 22, 2004 as the deadline for submission of plans. 

However, they were submitted incomplete and filed away, leaving the project in a state of suspended animation until the new plans were submitted last month. 

Sarachan’s plans come as real estate broker/developer John Gordon is completing his plans for moving the Woolley House and the landmarked Ellen Blood House at 2526 Durant Ave. to a lot at the southwest corner of Regent Street and Dwight Way. 

The new plans are still incomplete, planner Greg Powell said. 

“We need better drawings,” he said. “We need a full set of architectural plans, full site plans, complete floor plans. We need to know how he is going to comply with the city’s inclusionary ordinance.” 

The inclusionary ordinance requires developers of buildings with five or more apartments or condos to either set aside 20 percent of their units for low-income tenants or median-income buyers or pay compensatory fees to allow construction of units elsewhere. 

“If he pulls it off, it could become quite a local landmark,” Powell said. 


Bottom line 

So is Sarachan really serious? 

“I’m serious in that I’ve spent a lot of time and money on it, but that doesn’t mean it will actually occur,” he said. “There are about a hundred ways it could not get built, and about a hundred things would have to go right for it to get built. If I were a betting person, I would bet that it never gets built.” 

But if he builds it, he wants to do it well. 

“I figure that every builder should build one really good building for every nine or 10 bad ones he builds. When this is over, I’ll have to build nine or 10 really bad buildings,” he said, offering a rare smile.