2631 Durant
The owners of the 2-story, 18-unit apartment building at 2631 Durant Ave. want to demolish the structure, currently vacant, and build a 5-story, 56-unit apartment. Photo: Google Maps

The Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board will consider granting a permit to demolish a 2-story, 18-unit rent-controlled apartment building on Durant Avenue at its meeting Thursday, June 25, as part of the owner’s plan to replace it with a 5-story, 56-unit building.

The board’s main decision will be to determine whether to grant the demolition permit for 2631 Durant or require the owner to rehabilitate the Southside neighborhood building, just east of the now-shuttered Berkeley Art Museum. The new project would include 40 studios and 16 2-bedroom units, common facilities, bike storage, a first-floor office and 2,240 square feet of open space on a rooftop deck. Parking would not be provided.

To replace the rent-controlled units, the owner has proposed that 20 of the new units will be offered at 65% of the consumer price index, “although rents would be allowed to increase to market rate upon vacancy. These 20 units represent habitable square footage comparable to … the existing 18 units, and would accommodate the same number tenants,” according to the staff report prepared for Thursday night’s meeting.

Opponents of the demolition have asked the board to reject the permit or at least delay the vote, saying that the property had been neglected intentionally to pave the way for the new building.

In its applicant statement, Berkeley-based owner OPHCA LLC wrote that it would cost more than $2 million to repair the building in its current condition.

The planned five story apartment building. The owner wants to demolish the current structure and build from scratch.
The planned 5-story apartment building on Durant. The owner wants permission to demolish and build from scratch. Image: Stanley Saitowitz

“We are committed to creating something Berkeley rarely sees: 20 units of NEW rent controlled units, built to modern standards, and durable for the long term,” OPHCA wrote. “This project replaces the deteriorated stock with what every tenant deserves: housing built to high standards of safety, accessibility, cleanliness, and beauty.”

In January, a city of Berkeley building inspector determined the structure to be unsafe and deemed it a public nuisance, but did not designate it a public hazard, which would have allowed demolition without a permit. The building, which was constructed in 1925, has been vacant since June 2014.

The city staff report states that the proposed project is in line with the Southside Plan, which covers the area within the intersections of Bancroft Way, Fulton Street, Prospect Street and Dwight Way. The plan encourages infill development, the report states, and would “increase the amount of housing in the Southside for UC students, faculty, staff and employees of Southside businesses.” The report concludes by recommending that the zoning board approve the demolition permit.

The building is in poor condition, as observed in the January building inspection report. Despite repeated instructions to the owner to properly seal the building, multiple windows had not been boarded up and several had been broken, according to the inspection report.

“Staff observed that the building was occupied by at least one individual at the time of inspection,” building official Alex Roshal wrote in the report. “According to the owner this occupancy was allegedly without their consent. The lack of owner’s consent was disputed by the individual at the time of this inspection.”

The list of qualities leading to its classification as unsafe included “exposed, cut and damaged knob and tube wiring within walls and ceilings of most units,” walls and ceilings with holes allowing water intrusion, broken doors and cabinets and “bedding, decaying food, feces and hypodermic needles.”

In November and December 2014, the building owner allowed the Berkeley Fire Department to conduct training exercises in the building, which explains some of the damage: The activities included cutting holes in the walls and ceilings. The report suggested that the damage would be “repairable” because the Fire Department did not use hoses during its exercises.

See project documents on the city website.

The Berkeley Tenants Union condemned the owner’s demolition application in an email to Berkeleyside, saying the building should be rehabilitated rather than demolished. It also criticized the owner’s decision to let the Fire Department use the building for its exercises.

The Tenants Union, an advocacy organization for Berkeley renters, described the existing building as “18 rent controlled units which have traditionally been 100% occupied by students.”

The point of allowing the Fire Department to damage it during its drills was to expedite the demolition permit process, the Tenants Union claimed, saying “the owner was hoping the City would say that the structure was so dangerous that they could skip the whole Zoning Board/public process entirely and just tear the place down.”

Furthermore, the organization said the rent rates used by the developer are inaccurate and project lower future income, of $274,392, than a rehabilitated building would actually bring in. The future income is part of what the zoning board will consider when deciding whether to grant the demolition permit. City staff agreed that the numbers were off and said, based on its calculations, the property would likely bring in $344,760 in rent per year. But the Tenants Union said the city’s numbers are also too low.

Earlier this week, in an email regarding the project, a UC Berkeley student who said she used to live at 2631 Durant said tenants had been required by the owner to move out by a certain date, and that conditions had been poor.

“When I was signing my lease I was told that I was signing under the condition that I would move out on May 31, 2014. We were told that the building was going to be torn down and developed,” wrote Nicole Yeghiazarian. “The building was kept in awful shape because they did not want us to stay. When I moved into my apartment, there was mold. The kitchen was filthy with food stains around the stove.… Other tenants I talked to had similar complaints of conditions inside and outside of their units being dilapidated. It really felt like they were doing the bare minimum to not be sued, but wanted to make our conditions unpleasant enough that we would move out.”

Added local resident Tree Fitzpatrick, in an email to the zoning board, “To grant this project as requested is to condone demolition by neglect.”

The Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board has also taken issue with the project. In a June 10 memo, Executive Director Jay Kelekian explained to the city that, even with 20 of the units being offered at 65% of the CPI, “these units will be far less affordable and they will have fewer tenant protections than the existing rent-controlled units.”

Kelekian said the Rent Board would be happy to meet with the property owner “if there is an interest to modify the project so that the replacement building provides greater affordability” than the existing units.

The Associated Students of the University of California — the student government organization at UC Berkeley — has also written to the board to ask it to delay its vote until students return from summer vacation so they will have a chance to weigh in.

In February, the city’s Design Review Committee approved the project plans in a split 3-2 vote. Thursday night will be the project’s first review by the zoning board.

The Zoning Adjustments Board meets Thursday, June 25, at 7 p.m. in the City Council Chambers at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Other items on the agenda are the EIR review for 2211 Harold Way and a hearing about 1025 Ashby Ave.

Eden Teller, a junior at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, is a Berkeleyside summer intern. She is majoring in media and cultural studies and minoring in geology.

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Eden Teller is a freelance reporter, writer and amateur gardener. She began reporting for Berkeleyside as an intern in 2013 and continued her career with a B.A. in Media Studies from Macalester College...