Hillside School
The Finnish tech entrepreneur-turned-artist Samuli Seppälä will turn the old Hillside School at 1581 Le Roy Ave. into a residence and artistic space. Photo Kevin L. Jones

The Hillside School’s playground isn’t much to look at. Its play structures are tinged with rust and the basketball hoops date back to the 1940s. Yet Michael Scott’s 10-year-old grandson, who plays at the lot every time he visits, isn’t turned off its shabbiness.

“It doesn’t matter that it’s rusty and old,” Scott said. “He climbs a 10-foot cyclone fence to play in the playground and when he’s done, he reverses the procedure.”

The Scotts and other neighbors have used the 2-acre playground and an adjoining path that connects Le Roy Avenue and Buena Vista Way for decades. The Berkeley Unified School District closed Hillside School in 1980 and leased the property to various groups until 2014 so the area’s always been treated as public property.

But action by the Zoning Adjustments Board last week is bringing big changes to the property, some of which worry the neighbors. The board approved a plan by the Finnish tech entrepreneur-turned-artist Samuli Seppälä to turn the school into a private home.

Seppälä, who made his fortune from verkkokauppa.com, the Finnish equivalent to Amazon, intends to use the 50,000-square-foot structure at 1581 Le Roy Ave. as a personal residence. He will occupy two upper stories of the building’s southern wing, build a penthouse and create an accessory dwelling unit on the lower story of the central classroom wing, according to a staff report on the application. Seppälä also plans to create an artists’ colony on-site by converting eight classrooms to artists’ studios and constructing five work sheds on the playground for an “Art Park.” He plans to host two events a month with the artists who work there in the auditorium. Seppälä also intends to create 18 parking spaces and to construct a pool and hot tub on the roof. (Seppälä has refused requests for comment on this story.)

This work comes on top of work that Seppälä has already done to improve the property, including renovating the old flagpole.

“He’s very scrupulously rebuilt the place,” said Scott. “He hasn’t spared any expense. It’s just extraordinary.”

But Scott and other neighbors are concerned that Seppälä could eventually shut off some of the property to the public — even though the new owner says he won’t.

The future of the pathway on the property that links Le Roy to Buena Vista is of particular concern to some neighbors. It’s used frequently because the playground is so large; walking around it takes an extra 300 steps. Local residents also regard the path as a possible route during a disaster, such as the wildfire of 1923.

Seppälä has kept the path open since he acquired the property. He tells neighbors he likes it open. But he won’t give what neighbors want, which is an easement on the land, making it public property.

“I’m totally committed to preserving the path and keeping it accessible to the public. But because I’m the one responsible for the liability and property tax, I need to be able to control the time and manner of its use,”  Seppälä was quoted saying in a report to the zoning board.

Many neighbors expressed concern that Seppälä could sell the property and the new owners could cut off the path for public use. Still, Seppälä has stood firm in his views.

Berkeley officials support Seppälä’s point of view. According to the staff report prepared for the Zoning Adjustments Board, the city doesn’t want to deal with an easement and suggests the neighbors pursue it as a civil matter. In regards to keeping the path open in case of a fire, Berkeley Fire Chief David Brannigan wrote a letter stating that “While the property is well suited to be a temporary area of refuge for firefighters and possibly the public, it is private property, and we do not plan to count on it regardless of the use of the property.”

Along with trying to preserve the pathway, Scott pushed Seppälä to keep the playground

“[Seppälä] said among the reasons he chose to move to Berkeley was that it was kind of socialistic,” Scott said. “When I wrote to him at one point, I said, ‘Sam, you picked Berkeley because it was socialistic. Now if you think of society’s weakest, most powerless members, you got to think kids, right? Then you got to think: playground.’”

Seppälä bought the Hillside School property in 2018 for $5.5 million from the German International School of Silicon Valley. The school vacated the space because the property sits on the Hayward Fault. BUSD sold the land for that reason since its location disqualifies it from being used as a public institution. The Berkeley School and the Berkeley Chess Club also used the building at different times.

Walter Ratcliffe, the famed architect, designed the school in 1925. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Berkeley named the building a city landmark in 1982.

From left to right, architect Jerri Holan, Samuli Seppälä and property manager Veronica Peterson at the zoning board meeting about Hillside School on Thursday. Photo: Kevin L. Jones

The zoning board granted Seppälä his use permit Thursday after hours of public comment, much of it in support of Seppälä’s plans. While many of the people who spoke were Seppälä’s artist friends who described the Bay Area’s lack of affordable workspaces for artists, most were other residents of the Hillside neighborhood who were thankful that Seppälä bought the school in the first place.

“I am here because I have been so impressed with how the building and the grounds have been transformed. That transformation made me realize how important the beauty of historic buildings can be to a neighborhood and community,” 16-year Hillside resident Sondra Schlesinger said.

In the end, the board approved Seppälä’s plans with eight votes; one member, Dohee Kim, abstained. But it was Commissioner John Selawsky’s historical insight that hit on the issue that mattered most to the board. He pointed out that the property’s location on the Hayward Fault made it unsuitable for large-scale development.

“I sat on the school board when this property was sold,” said Selawsky. “We contacted and consulted with developers, consultants, etc., about how to build condos on it, or how to build housing. Nobody wanted to touch the place. No one. Times may have changed a bit but no one wanted to touch it for anything.”

Scott said he is contemplating an appeal of the board’s decision to City Council. He and some neighbors retained attorney Richard Drury to assist them in their fight. Drury challenged the plan as being out of compliance with CEQA guidelines but his remarks failed to impact the board’s decision.

playground and fence
Hillside School playground. Photo: Kevin L. Jones

“Hillside is now on way to being completely privatized despite 93 years of unimpeded public access,” Scott wrote in an email.

But Berkeley Vice Mayor Susan Wengraf, who represents the Hillside School’s district and lives across from the property, told Berkeleyside she wants her neighbors to move on.

“It’s not public. That’s the problem. But I think the real problem is that change is hard,” Wengraf said.

Kevin L. Jones is a freelance journalist and audio producer who lives in El Cerrito. See more of his work at kevinljones.com.