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Neighbors Emerge Victorious Over Telegraph Ave. Laundromat

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday February 04, 2010 - 08:25:00 AM
Southside Lofts Neighbor Joslyn Rose holds up a  sign at the Zoning Adjustments Board meeting last Thursday.
Riya Bhattacharjee
Southside Lofts Neighbor Joslyn Rose holds up a sign at the Zoning Adjustments Board meeting last Thursday.

The Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board sided with Southside Lofts residents Thursday when it unanimously denied a use permit for a laundromat at 3095 Telegraph Ave., citing health and safety concerns.  

The move was reminiscent of the zoning board’s 2006 decision to deny a permit for fast-food chain Quizno’s for the same spot in the building because of parking and trash issues.  

When an erroneously issued use permit by the city’s Planning Department led San Diego–based PWS to start construction at the site, one of the condo owners complained, setting off an investigation by city staff.  

The Planning Department discovered that, although PWS had been issued a use permit on the basis that another laundromat had previously existed at the site, that facility had burned down years ago, and the developers would be required to apply for a new administrative use permit.  

City officials issued a stop-work order, but when PWS threatened to sue, City Attorney Zach Cowan decided that the company should be allowed to carry on with the construction because the company had invested in plumbing and electrical wiring.  

The city and PWS signed a settlement agreement in November under which the city agreed tocompensate PWS for the additional costs resulting from the delay and pay for relocating the dryer vent from the ground floor to the roof.  

PWS agreed to a hearing before the zoning board, but reserved the right to file a lawsuit in the event that the city did not approve the permit.  

More than 15 neighbors showed up at the meeting—some carrying placards saying “no toxic mixed-use”—and requested the board not to sign off on the permit.  

Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, who lives above the proposed laundromat, asked the board why he would have to bear the brunt of the city’s mistakes.  

“I have asthma. I would have never spent my hard-earned money to live above a laundromat,” Ali said, arguing for a fair hearing. He said he was afraid the laundromat would pose a fire hazard.  

“Mr. Ali can’t just hop up and leave,” said Joslyn Rose, who has lived in the neighborhood for 16 years. “It’s one thing to walk by a laundromat and another thing to live above one....I am concerned that these residents will be exposed to a constant emission of chemicals and fumes from detergents and bleach.”  

Henry Sobel, an area homeowner, said Ali was getting “ripped off” as a result of the city’s settlement with PWS.  

“There’s no way he will be able to sell his condo if he wants to,” Sobel said. “Why is the city doing so much for a large out-of-area corporation? I am disturbed by the City Council and Planning Department’s pro-development, pro-business stance. We residents pay property taxes, which bring in a substantial amount of revenue to the city. What about us?”  

Bob McTavish, who was representing PWS, told the board that the proposed laundromat was intended to serve the neighborhood, to which condo owners responded that their homes already came equipped with washers and dryers.  

“We went to great lengths to meet with homeowners,” McTavish said. “We have taken efforts to eliminate concerns. When we submitted our application we were told [by planning staff] that there was a laundromat in the building, and that’s why we put in the application.”  

Rose said the fact that the laundromat would be unattended in the evenings—proposed hours of operation are from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.—was a big safety risk for homeowners.  

She questioned the need for another laundromat when there were two more located just a few blocks south on Telegraph.  

When Zoning Board Member Sara Shumer asked McTavish if PWS would be willing to hire an attendant, he said it would not be economically feasible for the company to do so.  

“The facility does need to be attended,” said Zoning Chair Deborah Matthews. “That area gets a high volume of transient traffic. I know what it’s like to have a laundry facility that’s not maintained.”  

Willard Neighborhood President George Beier said his organization was opposing the laundromat.  

“I have to say this is the most impressive and persuasive case brought forward in my time,” said Board Member Michael Alvarez Cohen, after reading the neighbors’ rebuttal to the zoning staff report submitted by the neighbors.  

Board Member Bob Allen said he would have liked to see an acoustical study done on the space and some input from the city’s health department about potential risks.  

Although some zoning board members wanted to postpone the decision, planning staff informed them that, under the settlement agreement, a formal decision would have to be made by March 23.  

The issue is scheduled to go before the City Council in March.