The design for a mixed-use project at 2501 Haste St. Courtesy: Kirk E. Peterson & Associates
This mixed-use project proposed at 2501 Haste St. has been in limbo for many months. Courtesy: Kirk E. Peterson & Associates

The frustration was palpable Thursday night as zoning board commissioners noted the lack of headway by the property owner of a highly anticipated mixed-use project proposed on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue.

The empty lot at 2501 Haste St., at Telegraph, has been vacant for more than 20 years, though owner Ken Sarachan has said he would like to build a 6-story Moorish palace-like structure there.

In 2012, Sarachan submitted preliminary plans to the community about his vision. But the process since then has been murky. Issues quickly cropped up related to the fate of an historic home on the project site, the potential need for an environmental review, and existing liens on the property which added up to $640,000. The latest hurdle is due to missing documents and details needed from the project architect, which must be turned in to the city before any approvals can take place.

Last fall, Sarachan and the city reached an agreement as part of a lawsuit regarding the property. As a result, the city agreed to forgo the money it was owed if Sarachan stuck to a particular development schedule for the project, called “El Jardin.” (It was also identified as “Ken’s Folly” on one early plan set.)

Under the current proposal, the 6-story building would include 79 dwelling units, more than 30,000 square feet of ground-floor commercial space and no off-street parking spaces. In a very brief statement about El Jardin, the units are described as primarily “generous one and two bedroom” apartments. The development team also said it was “exploring other community friendly possibilities such as public open space and a place where local artists and artisans can congregate to trade and sell their wares in a gallery like setting.”

When the blueprints for the building were first revealed, in April 2012, project architect Kirk Peterson said the design was inspired by Italian hill towns, Tibetan forts and the rock-cut architecture of Petra in Jordan, and the project name was “La Fortaleza” (as in “fortress” or “stronghold”).

Part of a building at 2433 Telegraph, just to the north of the empty lot, would be demolished to make room for the new structure.

What Telegraph Avenue, at Haste, could one day look like. Photo simulation: Kirk Peterson & Associates
What Telegraph Avenue, at Haste, could one day look like. Photo simulation: Kirk Peterson & Associates Architecture

Since the settlement was reached, the project has appeared repeatedly before the city’s Design Review Committee and Zoning Adjustments Board, as recently as Thursday night.

But — though they say they are excited about the prospect of the project — zoning board commissioners said Thursday they didn’t quite understand why basic documents they have requested, which are needed for design review to move forward, have not been submitted. Those include more detailed floor plans and elevation views, as well as landscape plans and more information about proposed project materials.

Under the settlement, the project must continue to appear on the agendas of both panels, whether or not new information has been turned in.

Earlier this year, Peterson did submit a request to pursue a density bonus for the project, which could make for a taller building with more units and fewer setbacks than would otherwise be allowed. But, according to Thursday night’s staff report, that application is incomplete and the city is awaiting more information, which was requested earlier this month.

Advisory comments submitted last summer from the Design Review Committee. Image: City of Berkeley
Advisory comments submitted last summer by the city’s Design Review Committee after seeing the project for the first time. Image: City of Berkeley

Zoning commissioners voted Thursday night to continue the matter to May 22, but said they were concerned about the failure of the applicant to produce the missing materials. They said they did not want their repeated continuations to reflect poorly on themselves or the city, or to seem like any kind of tacit approval.

City planner Greg Powell told the board there had been “absolutely no change in the project” since its first preview before the design review board in June 2013.

“A record is developing for a lack of performance on one side,” he said. “The city attorney is fully aware of the status as of today. I suspect that something is going to be different before we meet again.”

City attorney Zach Cowan said Friday that Sarachan had met some of his obligations as a result of attending the hearings since December, but that the current process — of waiting to receive the requested project documents — “is not free to go on forever.”

Cowan said the project would have to continue to appear on upcoming zoning and design review agendas — under the rules of the settlement — even if there’s nothing new to say.

Sarachan attended Thursday night’s zoning board meeting, though he arrived after the board’s vote to continue the matter. He brought with him a very large model of his project, and told the board he was under the impression that his architect and the city were “making lots of good progress” regarding the density bonus request.

Commissioners said they were not satisfied with that report.

Commissioner Sophie Hahn described El Jardin as “a fabulous crazy project” that she hopes to be able to approve one day. But she urged Sarachan to do everything in his power to push Peterson to turn over the missing documents “in a timely manner.”

Added Commissioner Bob Allen: “It’s a lot of fun and I would like to see it get built.” But he said none of the board’s questions had yet been addressed.

“I hope you’re not here trying to represent that you’re moving forward by showing us this (model),” he told Sarachan. “Because you haven’t done anything.”

Sarachan told the board he is “cooperative 100%” and said the delay could be due to his architect’s limited resources as a “busy guy” with “many other clients”: “I’m not holding Kirk [Peterson] back, or not paying his bills, or not anything that you imagine might be slowing him down. I’m there every day going, ‘Come on, Kirk, come on, Kirk.'”

Sarachan said he has developers already lined up “to pay the $30 million to build this thing,” and expressed frustration with the city’s approval process.

Commissioner Igor Tregub said, whatever Sarachan thinks of the process, the documents must be turned in before action can be taken.

“All we’re asking for is compliance with what has been requested,” Tregub said. “We’re not particularly interested in how it gets there.”

Sarachan, who also owns Rasputin Records, Blondie’s Pizza, the old Cody’s building and the retail development at 2350 Telegraph, has brought plans for the Haste site to the city before, including one that was based on a pagoda design. They were not approved. A plan to build affordable housing and an expanded Amoeba Records on the site fell through after Sarachan bought the land.

Read more Berkeleyside real estate coverage. See documents related to El Jardin on the city website.

‘Moorish-style palace’ for Telegraph Ave. is step closer (12.16.13)
Berkeley settles case with blighted Telegraph lot owner (10.31.13)
Telegraph Avenue property owner shows plan for vacant site (04.19.12)
Can Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue get its mojo back? (04.18.12)
Imagining a future for Telegraph Avenue without blinders (04.11.12)
Telegraph fire site owner plans for temporary resurrection (02.06.12)
Urban think tank: Student visions for blighted Telegraph lot (10.03.11)
City hands ultimatum to Sarachan on vacant Telegraph lot (09.07.11)
What about that vacant lot on Haste and Telegraph? (08.11.11)
Berkeley students want better stores, fewer street people (05.31.11)
City says it is addressing Telegraph Avenue rats problem (02.10.11)
The rats of Telegraph Avenue (video) (01.28.11)

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...