A striking and provocative design for a new mixed retail and residential building at the old Berkeley Inn site on the northeast corner of Haste and Telegraph was informally previewed Tuesday, April 17, 2012 by architect Kirk Peterson and property owner and developer Ken Sarachan.
If built, the six-story structure could close out the long-running saga of the Berkeley Inn site, which has featured feuding between Sarachan and the city. The most recent episode involves a lawsuit the City has filed against Sarachan, seeking to pressure him to develop the property or pay liens the City placed on the property when it demolished the Berkeley Inn, prior to Sarachan’s ownership.
The Berkeley Inn was a historic brick hotel, damaged and closed by fire in 1988, then destroyed by a second fire in 1990 and demolished. Sarachan, who owns the remainder of the Telegraph Avenue frontage on the block, bought the lot. It has sat vacant for two decades, although Sarachan has floated some previous development ideas including a retail building topped with pagodas.
The new project takes a completely different design direction. It is provisionally dubbed La Fortaleza (“The Fortress”), the same name as the official residence of the Governor of Puerto Rico; a fanciful historic building perched atop a stone fortress wall in San Juan.
Peterson’s design would include 74 units “mostly gracious one bedrooms” according to one of Peterson’s staffers who helped present the design, as well as some two and three bedroom units.
The building somewhat resembles a Moorish castle organically emerging from a craggy height. The two story lower façade is indented and surfaced to look like a rough, rocky, cliff face pierced with window openings, arches, and doors. There’s also a suggestion, perhaps, of the famed Antonio Gaudi apartment buildings in Barcelona.
“The design scenario is like a fictional history”, Peterson said. “The architecture is basically a hill town.” He likened the parti to an ancient cliff with inhabited caves, overlaid by later development.
The plan includes a basement space, accessible from a sunken courtyard on Haste Street, a main retail floor of more than 14,000 feet that could be subdivided into as many as four storefronts with their own sidewalk entrances, and four residential floors above, accessed by an entrance off Haste Street. The residential levels would be constructed around a courtyard facing south, but also have substantial indents of roof terraces, setbacks, and balconies along the Telegraph Avenue side on the upper elevations.
Peterson is a prolific local architect who has done several buildings in Downtown Berkeley and others in Oakland. His style is an updated traditionalism that intentionally seeks out good historic precedent; Peterson is also an avid collector of old design books and traveler in Europe. His approach generally sets him apart from the much larger crowd of designers who rush in unison from modern trend to trend, all the while proclaiming their individuality.
In my experience Peterson’s buildings generally wear well with their surroundings, complement traditional streetscapes, and often have considerable lay appeal. Some of those attending the presentation echoed that impression.
“There would be a lot of people who would come to town to see that”, said Ed Monroe, a long-time Berkeley artist and writer who used to organize street fairs on Telegraph, looking at the design drawings.
“It’s a mixture of conventional and creative. It could be interesting,” said Roland Peterson, Executive Director of the Telegraph Avenue Business District, who was one of the dozen or so who came to the Caffe Med, half a block south of the site, to see the proposal. Others included nearby property owners and business people and residents, plus one City of Berkeley and one University of California official.
“It’s a wonderful folly,” said another spectator, with enthusiasm. There was criticism of the design from one architect in the audience. Businessman and real estate broker John Gordon also offered an informal critique of some of the proposed commercial arrangements, noting that potential retail tenants would probably want more prominent display windows and entrances along Telegraph, and that the arched setbacks along the sidewalk could provide spaces for panhandlers to sit or shelter.
Gordon has an indirect connection to the project site in that he’s willing to take and rehabilitate the historic Woolley House, a 1870s Victorian on Haste owned by Sarachan that would need to be moved to enlarge the Berkeley Inn site.
Gordon has a site for the Woolley House at Regent and Dwight, a block south of the Berkeley Inn lot. He noted that he’s had a project proposal in to the City of Berkeley since 2007, but City staff will require an Environmental Impact review of the relocation of the house—a designated City Landmark—and that Sarachan would need to pay for the EIR.
In a side discussion Sarachan argued that the Woolley House “could have been moved last summer” to Gordon’s site if the City had gone ahead with a historic review, as he thought they would do. “Instead of doing that they decided to have a lawsuit. As long as there’s that lawsuit there will be no building. It’s up to the politicians.”
“The sticking point is instead of hiring a consultant the way they were supposed to, they decided to shut the whole process down,” Sarachan said.
Another issue is who will pay for the EIR. Gordon doesn’t want to, since he’ll be accepting the 19th century house and investing in its rehabilitation. Sarachan has balked at the City’s estimated price tag for the environmental review, noting that a consultant who studied the proposed move of the landmark 1891 Blood-Tompkins House from Durant Avenue already evaluated the basic historic issues.
The Blood-Tompkins House, owned by major Berkeley property owner Ru-El Enterprises, would also go to Gordon’s Regent Street property under the development scenario, opening its current site for infill development.
Thus, three Southside sites and two landmark buildings would be affected in a chain of events if Berkeley Inn site development moves forward.
If the historic houses are cleared for relocation, “I’m ready to go,” Gordon says about his development, which would accept the two houses on one lot, and rehabilitate them to contain two and three bedroom apartments. Gordon already owns two adjacent, rehabilitated, historic buildings with commercial frontages on Telegraph Avenue.
If the La Fortaleza project proceeds with Peterson as architect, he is poised to make a renewed major impact on Berkeley infill building in the coming decade. He’s also the architect for the proposed Acheson Commons project, a more-than-half-block big, five building development on University Avenue in Downtown, and has been working on plans for temporary retail space on the Sequoia Building site across from the Berkeley Inn lot.
Although critical of the City on the site environmental review issues, Sarachan was very upbeat about the design at the informal presentation. “I think this is Kirk’s masterpiece”, he said. “This is the best design he’s ever done.”
(Steven Finacom has written frequently for the Planet, often on historic, design, and development topics. He’s currently the Vice President of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, which has taken positions in the past on Southside development issues, including those involving the Blood-Tompkins house.)