What’s the secret? It’s called “illegal development” and the Planning Department of the City of Berkeley will go out of its way to help you succeed. The Southside Lofts, at 3095 Telegraph Ave., is a case study on how to ensure that you maximize your profitability while fending off your helpless victims: homeowners.
How was this achieved? In 2002 Milt’s coin-op laundry, to the dismay of the Bateman Neighborhood, was completely destroyed in a fire. A developer later proposed and built a “luxury” condo complex there, with retail space at the ground level. During all phases of the site’s development, neighbors inquired of the developer regarding what businesses would occupy the retail space, but the responses were oddly evasive—especially so when a reinstatement of a laundromat was suggested. The reason for this shrewd avoidance of the laundromat subject is now plain: you can’t sell a luxury condo for over a half a million bucks if it’s directly above a business that generates noise and fumes from 7 a.m. in the morning until 10 p.m. in the evening 365 days a year. Who in their right mind would consider that a good investment? Well, you might—if you were duped.
You see, this developer proposed the condo project to the city without including designs for a laundromat. In fact, the developer would have had to request a special permit for doing so, and that would have made the intent known to the entire community—including potential home buyers. So instead, each of the 10 condo units was sold under the pretense that they were luxury units in a well-to-do neighborhood, and the developer hefted a healthy ransom. But, as it turns out, laundering clothes is not just a pocket full of change; and the laundromat still had legs. With the condo units now sold, the developer submitted a permit application to the planning department for “the renovation of an existing laundromat,” instead of an application for “converting vacant retail space in a mixed use building into a laundromat.”
What’s the subtle difference? Besides the fact that there was no longer a laundromat existing at the site at the time of submission, one kind of application requires review by the community, while the other does not. For obvious reasons, the developer picked the kind that doesn’t require other folks to be informed of the work—not even those directly affected by it: the residents of the building. And lo and behold, the application was approved!
What a tremendous error was made on the part of the planning department: by not confirming the veracity of the application, the planning department kick started the developer’s laundromat-making machine, and off it went—in stealth mode. First, the windows of the space were papered with anti-peeping paper, then a false “for lease” sign was posted, and finally, contractors swarmed the place like termites building a nest—you can’t see them, but they’re there and they’re gnawing. The problem was that the building hadn’t been designed with dirty laundry in mind; so eventually, the frass hit the fan: the developer needed to modify the building to the extent that the residents’ spaces had to be modified, and the secret was out. But what can you do when you’re a simple wage earner and you discover your place of rest is being illegally modified right under your feet? Come home from work and study building code? Call the city? Calling the city achieved two things: it confirmed how the development process had been wrongly initiated, and what you need to do in order to short circuit it to your favor—just spend some money. According to the city attorney: because the developer and his cronies had already spent money on their dubious activity—it didn’t matter if it had caused damage to other folks, whom the process had failed—the developer’s building permit could not be revoked.
So now the secret formula for profiting at your neighbors’ expense in Berkeley is laid bare: maximize your profitability by squeezing as many residents into a developing space at the highest price point possible—hopefully, over-extending their budgets in the process; trip-up the City so that it believes everything is OK and can’t unwittingly divulge your intentions to the neighbors; stealthily rush in the business that favors your bottom line before affected residents can react; and finally, count on the city to back you up—after all, it’s your bottom line that lives in Berkeley, not you.
Vincent Abeyta is a Berkeley resident.