A section of the 35-year old garden at 2401/2403 Virginia St. that is at the center of a dispute. Photo: Wally Gorell

For the past 36 years, Wally Gorell has been tending a garden outside his apartment at 2401/2403 Virginia St. just north of the UC Berkeley campus. During that time he transformed barren beds into a space many neighbors call “magical,” with fragrant bushes, tall palms and exotic greenery that forms a canopy over the sidewalk.

But on Tuesday, Gorell and some of his neighbors stood outside the building near Scenic Avenue, ready to defend the garden from a crew from Donado Tree Service, which had been ordered by the owner to chop the greenery back four feet from the white-stucco building. The owners of the property, the Anderson family, want to paint the structure, one of three they own in the immediate vicinity, on Nov. 16. To do so, they say they need to clear space to set up scaffolding – even though it is only a one-story building.

“In order for the painter to paint the building, all ground plants must sit at least four feet away from the sides of every building structure,” Daniel Bornstein, of the law firm Bornstein and Bornstein, wrote in a certified letter to Gorell. “If this landscaping work is not completed prior to November 9, 2015, the property’s owner group will contract to have the work performed by a tree and or landscaping contractor.”

Gorell believes the painting can be done without removing large portions of his garden. A painting company he consulted with told him that the painting could be accomplished without removing the plants, he said.

A Berkeley police officer monitors the scene at 2401/2403 Virginia St. on Nov. 10. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

On Nov. 10, the crew from Donado did start to do some trimming but stopped after Gorell confronted them. A representative from the property management company K and S Real Estate Management of Albany (who declined to identify himself to either Gorell or Berkeleyside), then called the Berkeley police, who responded to the scene but did not intervene. The crew then left before doing any significant yard work.

This conflict is only the latest in a string of issues between Gorell and his landlords over his garden.

Gorell moved into the rent-controlled, one-bedroom apartment in 1979 and began to add plants to the front and side of the building soon after that. Gene Anderson, the son of the original owners, and his wife used to visit annually and would compliment Gorell on how he had turned the space into an alluring swath of green, according to Gorell. Gorell also wrote to the Andersons in 1992 to describe his plans for the garden. There were no complaints, he said.

In 2004, a neighbor complained that some of Gorell’s pots were bothering her. He agreed to remove them. In 2006, Gorell was told that the owners were concerned that the plants were causing water damage to the building. Gorell was told he needed to remove the plants so they were at least a foot away from the walls of the apartment house. Gorell did that, he said.

In 2013, the property management company asked Gorell to cut back his plants three feet away from the side of the building. He protested because he thought it would destroy much of his garden. Gorell collected more than 500 signatures supporting him through an online petition. Gorell then asked the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board to mediate the dispute. Matthew Siegel, an attorney with the board, did so, and the two sides agreed to a set of terms. Gorell agreed to remove some plants along a walkway, remove some potted plants from a driveway, and remove a Balinese carved bench, among other conditions. He was not required to cut the shrubs three feet away from the walls.

But the Anderson family, represented by Chris Anderson in the mediation, never signed the agreement, said Gorell.

In October 2015, Gorell received another request to cut back his plants — this time to four feet away from the building’s walls. He was also asked to cut all trees and palms to four feet below the roof line and to remove the irrigation system that he had paid for and installed.

A section of Wally Gorell’s garden on Virginia Street. Photo: Wally Gorell
A section of Wally Gorell’s garden on Virginia Street. Photo: Wally Gorell

Gorell told the management company that he was willing to cut back some shrubs but not to the degree requested. The beds are only six feet wide and removing four feet of garden would have ruined them, he said.

” I have told K&S, their property managers, that I am ready and willing to help them accomplish the job with as little harm to the garden as possible,” Gorell wrote. “There is no need to remove plants, trees or shrubbery from the property, although some trees and shrubs will need to be cut back to allow access for the painters.”

Gorell said he contacted another painting company he found on Yelp. They came to the apartment complex and told him the structure could be painted without using a scaffold.

On Oct. 19, Gorell got a certified letter from the attorney, Daniel Bornstein, outlining the family’s demands. It stated that they needed to be done by Nov. 9 so painting could begin Nov. 16.

Gorell’s attorney, Harvey Kletz, has tried to contact the law firm representing the Anderson family to see if a compromise can be reached. So far, they haven’t responded, he said. The Andersons and K&S have not responded either to Siegel of the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board seeking to renew mediation attempts. Neither Daniel Bornstein nor the management company nor Chris Anderson responded to Berkeleyside’s request for comment.

Wally Gorell leans against the 25-foot tree he planted from a seed he brought back from Australia. His landlord has asked him to drastically chop its height to four feet below his apartment’s roof line. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Wally Gorell leans against the 25-foot tree he planted from a seed he brought back from Australia. His landlord has asked him to drastically chop its height to four feet below his apartment’s roof line. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

On Tuesday, a visibly upset Gorell pointed out some of the plants that would have to be removed if he complied with the landlords’ latest request. They included a 25-foot palm tree Gorell planted from a seed he brought back from Australia, a fragrant Himalayan Luculia he got from the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, and an Angel’s Trumpet, among other plants.

“It is a well-loved community garden and was designed as a community garden with fragrant plants along the walkway, with flowers that reward close interest,” said Gorell. It was designed “specifically to slow people down as they walk by.”

As he stood outside the garden, a number of neighbors walked by to offer support. Two had also volunteered to tie back some of the plants to allow room for painters to gain access to the walls.

“I bring my grandkids here, to Wally’s garden,” said Michael Burr, who lives nearby. “It’s magical. Wally really is an artist in what he has done in 35 years.”

Kate Pinel moved to Berkeley in January after her mother died of pancreatic cancer. Pinel had cared for her mother in her last days, and was grief-stricken and drained after her death. She found Gorell’s garden renewing, she said.

“The garden, it kind of saved my heart,” said Pinel. “Coming through here has really helped me to feel part of the world again, part of the community.”

Gorell believes the property owners may be intending to sell their three properties and want to get rid of him as his rent is so low. He pays $900 for a one-bedroom apartment with parking. Two women who live in the same complex pay $2,195 for a one-bedroom, they told Berkeleyside.

“I can’t help seeing it as harassment,” said Gorell. “The only motivation (I think) is they want to make it so unpleasant that I will move away.”

“It’s just so sad that this garden is threatened,” said a neighbor who asked not to be identified because she rents from the Anderson family. “It’s a gem in the neighborhood.”

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to say that the painter Gorell contacted told him that it wouldn’t be necessary to remove plants to paint the house. An earlier version said the contractor said no scaffolding would be necessary. It has also been changed to say the representative from the property management company called the police, not someone from the gardening crew.

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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...