The city of Berkeley holds $500,000 in liens against this lot at 2501 Haste Street. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The city of Berkeley may finally be getting fed up with the vacant, rat-infested lot on the northeast corner of Haste and Telegraph.

The City Council on Tuesday will consider filing a lawsuit against Ken Sarachan, the owner of the lot, to collect $500,000 in city liens on the property. The idea so delights City Councilman Kriss Worthington, who represents the area and who has long been frustrated by an empty space in such a prime commercial district, that he sent out an email blast to his constituents on Friday.

He urged them to come to the City Council meeting on Tuesday – even though it is a closed session and is not open to the public.

“It’s time to take action NOW on the Berkeley Inn site at Haste & Telegraph!’ Worthington wrote in an email (the bold font is his). “After many years of repeated noise problems, trash, and problem rats overtaking the site, the Berkeley Inn will be on the City Council agenda this coming Tuesday, September 6th, at 5:30pm. It’s time to take action now. If the City Council takes a strong stance on the issue, it will either force the property owner to do something, or the Council will ensure that the property owner gives Berkeley taxpayers about $500,000 from the lien on the property, which hopefully will go to affordable housing to make up for the affordable housing which was lost by the fire. Either way, the City will get something happening in order to rectify years of blight.”

Sarachan, 59, the owner of Rasputin Records, Blondie’s Pizza, the old Cody’s building, and the large glass and steel shopping mall at 2350 Telegraph, could not be reached for comment.

For more than 80 years, the Berkeley Inn, a 75-room hotel designed in 1911 by the architect Joseph Cather Newsom (a relative of Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s) stood at 2501 Haste Street. It burned down in 1990, and the owner essentially abandoned the property.

The city cleaned up the debris at significant expense but could not collect reimbursement from the owner. It filed liens against the property as a result. A non-profit group tried to build an affordable housing complex on the property with Amoeba Records on the ground floor, but the plan was never realized. In 1994, Sarachan acquired the land, and, with it, the $500,000 in liens. It has sat vacant since then, and Worthington and others consider it a blight and a drag on the neighborhood. Rats come out at night and weeds grow through cracks in the concrete.

The city has offered over the years to forgive the liens if Sarachan would develop the lot. Berkeley first made the offer in 1998, and, when there was no response from Sarachan by February 2003, set a September 2004 expiration date. Nothing happened. Then, in July 2006, Sarachan submitted some initial designs to the city to build a five-story Asian-themed structure with towering pagodas, but he never formally submitted an application.

Rats scurrying around at night at the lot on Haste and Telegraph. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Sarachan told the Daily Californian in September 2010 that the city’s regulations and quota restrictions made it too burdensome for new projects to begin, including his ideas for a structure on his Haste Street lot and a “beer and books” business in the old Cody’s site.

“They don’t trust a free market in Berkeley,” Sarachan told the newspaper. “They might open too many yogurt stores and the world might end or something horrible might happen — like all the vacancies would go away.”

Worthington said he has been pushing for the city to take action on the lot for years and is not sure why movement is coming now. It may be the recent attention paid to the site by the media, including a video posted on Berkeleyside in January showing rats scurrying around, which was itself prompted by comments made by Amoeba Music owner Marc Weinstein at a Berkeleyside business forum. The video went viral and was picked up by many television stations. More recently a group of UC-Berkeley students made a video, also posted on Berkeleyside, which posed the question “What about that vacant lot on Haste and Telegraph?

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...