Ken Sarachan is moving forward with plans to construct a Moorish-style housing complex on a lot at Haste and Telegraph that has been empty for 30 years. Architectural drawing of El Jardin, 2501 Haste St. Image: Jarvis Architects

An empty lot at the corner of Haste and Telegraph Avenue, which has been a rat-infested eye-sore in the commercial district for almost three decades, is now a step closer to housing an eye-catching “Moorish-castle” building that could re-define the area.

On May 4, the building’s owner, Ken Sarachan, requested a “use permit modification” to the proposed six-story building at 2433 Telegraph Ave., also known as 2501-2509 Haste. He has also enlisted a developer to build the structure. The original permit for the building now called “El Jardin” was granted in 2017 and allows for a 111,726-square-foot mixed-use building. This includes 22,456 square feet of retail space in the basement, ground floor and mezzanine levels. The modification allows for a dozen or so extra bedrooms to be added to the existing plans, according to Berkeley City Councilman Kriss Worthington.

The upper levels will now include “group living accommodations” for about 240 people. The residential levels, floors two to six, will consist of studios, two-bedroom “living accommodations” and four-bedroom “living accommodations” arranged around a courtyard at the podium level. Since the building is about three blocks from UC Berkeley, the expectation is that these “group living accommodations” will basically function as dorm rooms. Open space will consist of a large roof deck above the sixth floor, and the fourth and fifth floors will also provide access to outdoor terraces at the corner of Haste and Telegraph.

The project provides no off-street parking, but the plan proposes two bike rooms which will provide enough bike parking for every resident in the building. Since the vast majority of the residents are expected to be university students, impact on traffic is expected to be minimal.

Worthington said he was delighted that the vacant lot would finally be developed after standing vacant for decades and that other major parcels at that intersection had recently been reinvigorated. Not so long ago that area was forlorn; the lot stood empty, the Sequoia Apartments across the street had been destroyed by a fire, and the old Cody’s Books was vacant.

“2018 is like a trifecta for that corner of Telegraph Avenue,” said Worthington. “I have worked on this corner for 25 years, since before I was even on the council. Now that the Sequoia building is back in operation, and Amoeba Records has revitalized by adding Hi Fidelity [a cannabis dispensary] to their business model, and this lot is about to be developed — this is phenomenally exciting. There will be more customers in that area, and those customers are also likely to go to other” stores and restaurants.

Worthington said that in his time on the council, he has gotten more complaints about this empty lot — “the rats, the trash, the noise” — than about any other issue. “It’s wonderful that there is a developer ready to actually go out and build some new housing, so we can have dramatic improvements to that one corner, all in one year. These three improvements to this one intersection will really help the Telegraph economy dramatically.”

Berkeleyside was unable to reach Todd Whitlock of West Properties, the developer, for comment, despite repeated attempts. 

When asked about a timeline for the project, Worthington admitted that “if the Sequoia building is any indication, the city process takes a long time.” Construction on the Sequoia began in 2014, and the building has just recently been completed.  “The developer has done most of what the city needs, but it can take months to get a simple answer out of the city,” Worthington said. “You do all your work and then you sit there for months waiting for an answer, even after years of going through the zoning process.” 

Worthington said he would be “arguing with the city manager” to not to “add months and months of additional delay, now that someone is willing and ready to build. We should expedite any paperwork that needs to be done, not add additional delays.” He was referring to building permits.

“Iconic” Moorish castle

Stuart Baker, executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District, said this project is key to the revitalization of the avenue. “Telegraph Avenue is struggling, and this lot is at the core, the geographic center, of our district,” he said. ”We are thrilled as to what this building means for the avenue: it’s kind of wild, it’s certainly not the minimalist stuff you see being built all over Berkeley. It’s cool, it’s fun, it has the potential to become iconic.”

Sarachan, the long-time owner of this vacant lot who submitted the building plans after years of pressure from the city, said that the Moorish palace-like structure was inspired by Italian hill towns, Tibetan forts and the rock-cut architecture of Petra in Jordan. City Councilwoman Sophie Hahn, who was serving on the zoning board commission when this plan was first submitted for approval, called El Jardin “a fabulous crazy project.” 

Sarachan plans to sell the land to the developer once certain conditions are met, Worthington said. Those conditions include keeping the exterior Moorish design. “So many other developers have talked to Ken and not been able to reach an agreement,” Worthington said. “The fact that Todd (Whitlock) could make an agreement is fantastic.”

Worthington was instrumental in pushing this project forward. In February of last year, Worthington asked the City Council to set a 90-day deadline to require Sarachan to build at the site or to pay a $640,000 fee to the city for past clean-up of the lot, along with accrued interest.

Part of the requirement for waiving the fee is that the building include a public restroom, which both Worthington and Baker said is badly needed on Telegraph. Worthington said the language did not spell out whether there would be one stall or several, “but having a public restroom inside that is maintained and available to the public is critical.” Worthington said that he has been trying to get a public restroom on Telegraph Avenue for years. A previous attempt failed when a former mayor took the funds intended for the public bathroom and used them for another project, Worthington said.

Ken Sarachan, who owns multiple properties on Telegraph Avenue, bought 2501 Haste St. in 1994. The Berkeley Inn sat there for decades until a fire destroyed it. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Empty lot has a long and storied history

The lot at Haste and Telegraph has been vacant since a 1990 fire burned down the Berkeley Inn, which used to stand on that spot. The landmark building — also known as “Heroin Hotel,” according to a booklet called Telegraph’s Quirky History by Tom Dalzell — was subsequently demolished. Sarachan — who also owns Rasputin Records, Blondie’s Pizza, the Mad Monk Center for Anachronistic Media in the old Cody’s Building diagonally across from the site, as well as the retail development at 2350 Telegraph — bought the property in 1994. 

There were a number of existing liens on the site, and Berkeley agreed to forgo them if Sarachan developed the plot, setting an initial deadline of 2004. Sarachan acquired adjacent properties to the east and north of the site in order to build an ambitious project. Nothing happened for years. The lot sat vacant, and the City Council voted in September 2011 to foreclose on the property, which would have meant Sarachan had to pay off hundreds of thousands of dollars in liens, or see the property sold at auction. 

At one point, the UC Berkeley vice chancellor for real estate announced that there was a joint development agreement with Sarachan to construct the building, but the deal fell apart.

Now that a zoning permit has finally been issued and actual building appears imminent, Baker said he is feeling optimistic. “This is the furthest this lot has ever gotten,” he said. Worthington agreed. “We are trying to improve the small business climate in Berkeley,” he said. “This improvement to the intersection will really help the Telegraph economy dramatically.”

Freelancer Daphne White began her reporting career in Atlanta and then worked as a journalist in Washington, DC, for more than a decade. She covered Congress, education and teachers’ unions, and then...