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Telegraph Neighbors Clash With City Over Laundromat

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday November 05, 2009 - 08:33:00 AM
A laundromat trying to move into a ground floor commercial space  on Telegraph Avenue had raised the ire of potential neighbors.
By Riya Bhattacharjee
A laundromat trying to move into a ground floor commercial space on Telegraph Avenue had raised the ire of potential neighbors.

Residents and neighbors of Southside Lofts at 3095 Telegraph Ave. are fighting to keep a national retail chain off the property. 

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is.  

Members of the same group rallied the city three years ago to prevent fast food conglomerate Quizno’s from moving into the same space, citing quality-of-life issues, something they say has come back to haunt them, except this time their ire is directed toward a laundromat. And the city of Berkeley. 

The group is demanding a public hearing because Planning Department officials have admitted that they erroneously issued a permit for Launderland, one in a string of laundry stores owned by San Diego–based PWS Laundry. The permit wasbased on the prior existence of Milt’s Coin-Op Laundromat at the site, when in fact it was illegal for PWS to start construction without an administrative use permit because the old structure in which Milt’s was located burned down in 2002. 

Southside Lofts, a mixed-use condominium project, was built in 2006. 

In an Oct. 14 memo to the Berkeley City Council, City Manager Phil Kamlarz wrote that although Launderland’s developers stated in the application that the existing use was a laundromat, planning staff’s comments on the documents “reflected that the laundromat had burned down, but that laundry use was still allowed at the site.” 

Kamlarz concluded that the zoning certificate “was not issued based on the misrepresentation that there was an existing laundromat.” 

Although concerns from the condo owners led the city to issue a stop-work order for the project, Kamlarz said it was rescinded after the city attorney determined that the developer had already invested in a large amount of construction and signed contracts with PG&E and EBMUD. 

Southside Lofts landlord Sam Sorokin, who is keen on renting the space to Launderland, said that Milt’s had burned down because of poor maintenance by its owners, something he promises will not happen with the proposed project. 

Some homeowners who suffered property damage worth thousands of dollars in the fire said that Milt’s operators didn’t clean the lint filters, something they fear could happen at the new laundromat as well. 

Sorokin told the Planet that Launderland’s developers had printed “laundromat” under existing use in the permit application because planning staff had asked them to. 

The city’s Assistant Planning Director Wendy Cosin, denied this, saying, “We don’t tell people what to put in their applications.” 

Berkeley City Attorney Zack Cohen said the city was in the process of investigating what had occurred. 

Southside Lofts condo-owner Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, whose apartment sits directly above the proposed laundromat, said that neighbors wanted the city to hold a public hearing to hear their concerns. 

Ali, who is a 35-year-old actor, said he would have never bought the condo had he known there would be laundromat vents three feet below his bedroom window. 

“I love Berkeley, I love being here—I bought the house because I like the quality of life in the Bay Area,” he said. “I have no issues with a laundromat but I don’t want to live above one. My property value will never be the same again. How can a city which prides itself on social justice and civil rights break its own law?” 

In an article titled “Dirty Laundry” sent to the Claremont Elmwood Neighborhood Association newsletter, Marcy McGaugh, coordinator of public safety for the Bateman neighborhood, vividly recalled the morning of Jan. 26, seven years ago, when the three-alarm fire at Avenue Liquors and Milt’s had filled her street with firefighters from Berkeley and Oakland, “who worked through the night and into the morning to put out the fire.” 

McGaugh said that, during the development of Southside Lofts, area property owners had opposed any kind of commercial establishment that would pose a fire danger to the neighborhood. 

“We let Mokka come in because it didn’t involve any flames,” she said, pointing to the cafe that occupies the corner on Dowling Street. “But the amount of heat and noise a laundry creates is not something that’s safe and healthy. These people bought these homes and can’t leave.” 

McGaugh said that the group had submitted a petition to the City Council with more than 300 signatures opposing the laundromat. 

Sorokin, who said he has lost a lot of money from not being able to rent out the space after the neighbors blocked Quizno’s from moving in, said a public hearing would not solve anything. 

“They (condo-owners) bought a property on Telegraph Avenue with retail under it,” he said. “The negative comments are covering up the real issue—a classism mentality. They’d rather have a gym.” 

Sorokin added that the building was completely sprinkled, and he waved off concerns about the laundromat being a fire hazard as “ridiculous.” 

UC Berkeley graduate Joselyn Rose, who has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years, said she was concerned about the laundromat bringing more crime and parking problems to the area. 

“But at the end of the day the city is not following the law—it’s not a classism issue,” Rose shot back. “They cannot silence our voice.” 

The threat of a lawsuit from at least one Southside Lofts resident has forced the city to address the issue immediately, and Cohen will be meeting with city councilmembers in closed session Nov. 9 to discuss the legal ramifications of rescinding the stop-work order. 

“It’s a nightmare,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who represents the district. “I am looking forward to what the city is allowed to do in this unfortunate situation.” 

There will be a 10-minute public comment section preceding the council’s meeting.