A key piece of pre-World War II Japanese history will be lost amid rubble and concrete next week to make way for the development of condos and retail in West Berkeley.
For many of the Berkeley residents who frequented the Auto California showroom at 1806 San Pablo Ave. until it closed recently, the building meant just one thing—a car wash run by an amicable Middle Eastern family.
When local historian Donna Graves embarked on a project to document California’s hidden Japantowns last December, she stumbled upon Auto California’s buried past.
Run by the Iwahashi family in the early 1930s, the quaint single-story building was used to grow and sell flowers.
“It was called the San Pablo Florist & Nursery,” Graves told the city’s landmarks commission while doing a presentation on Preserving California’s Japan-towns in October.
After the Iwahashis moved back to Japan in the mid-30s, the business was bought by Hisako and Shigeharu Nabeta, who came from two of the earliest flower-growing families in Richmond.
Forced into WWII internment camps in 1942, the couple leased their business to Mr. Yee—a local Chinese florist—until they returned to Berkeley in 1946. In 1949, the Nabetas built a house next door where they raised three sons and lived until Shigeharu’s death in 1994. The following year, Hisako sold the business and moved on.
Graves’ efforts to put the nursery on a list of 60 pre-WWII-era buildings to either landmark or preserve proved fruitless. She discovered the building was scheduled for demolition this month.
The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, Zoning Adjustments Board and the City Council approved a use permit to demolish the building and construct a four-story, 51-unit apartment complex with retail space and 67 parking spaces back in 2004.
At that point, no one in the city was aware of its Japanese connection.
“There is very little we can do about it now,” Dan Marks, the city’s planning director, told the Planet Friday. “There was opportunity for public review ... It was sent before landmarks but there was no information to indicate that it was a former Japanese nursery. If the owner applies for a building permit to demolish the structure now, then I would have to go ahead and issue it.”
Syed Adeli—who owns Auto California—told the Planet last week that he didn’t plan to demolish the building for the next two or three months. However, ZCON Builders—the contractors hired for the project—began demolition work Tuesday. The building is currently being prepared for asbestos abatement and will be torn down Monday.
“The time was right,” Adeli told the Planet Wednesday. “We got all the permits from the city and we wanted to start demolishing as soon as possible.”
Adeli is awaiting a $315,588 building permit fee deferral, which would allow him to start construction. His building permit application will expire on December 21 if the fee is not paid or deferred.
Councilmembers Linda Maio and Laurie Capitelli will ask the City Council to grant the deferral at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
Since fee deferrals are not common for projects of similar size in Berkeley, Marks had expressed concern at a public meeting that it would set a precedent for future projects.
“I did not support the project in the beginning, but I have changed my mind since then. If this project is not approved then we could get a bulkier and boxier project. Adeli has included extra parking spots for the neighborhood and addressed a lot of their concerns,” Maio said. “The building is fairly well designed and does not evoke the state density bonus law. I know about Donna’s concern, but we are so far down the road now that we can’t start from square one.”
Both Maio and Capitelli expressed concern in their request to the council that Adeli could be in danger of being caught in the sub-prime lending fiasco.
“If he were to back away and lose the property it would be a disaster for him financially,” Maio said. “The permit application has been extended three times and currently expires on Dec. 21.”
Adeli told the Planet that he would not be able to save the nursery but was open to recording its history. “We respect the community’s concern but there is nothing in the building that resembles Japanese culture in any way,” he said. “My project will be a great contribution to San Pablo Avenue ... It will improve the neighborhood tremendously.”
Paul Osaka, executive director of the Japanese Community and Cultural Center and representative of the California Japanese Leadership Council, said most Nisei-owned buildings did not resemble Japanese architecture because the 1913 Alien Land Law prevented Japanese immigrants from buying property.
“It’s not a matter of one building, it’s a matter of collective history,” he said. “The Japanese-American nursery business was a big part of California’s economy. Once historical resources are gone, they are gone.”
He added that cities and developers should extensively research a building before demolishing it or try to retain it in the new development.
“If all else fails, then it’s important to document and photograph it before it’s gone,” he said.
For the city’s planning department, it’s a lesson learned.
“Thanks to Donna, we do have a list we can look at now,” said project planner Aaron Sage. “There’s no way we can know about a past event or person living in a building by just looking at it. We don’t do the level of research that historians do ... We make a determination about its importance by looking at the architecture, age and the 1970 Berkeley Architecture Heritage survey of historically significant buildings.”
Terry Blount, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission secretary, told the Planet that it might be possible to apply for a grant from the State Historic Preservation Office to record historical buildings in the future.
“Every time we lose an irreplaceable historic structure we lose a chance to connect to the community’s diverse past,” Graves said. “If we really need more housing then there must be a way to build around what is important. The purpose of our project is to discover the sites and share the information with the community so that they can make the best planning decisions.”