1921 Walnut St. was built in 1909. UC Berkeley is in negotiations to purchase the apartment building. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

UC Berkeley is in negotiations to purchase — and then potentially tear down — a 111-year-old rent-controlled apartment building on Walnut Street where some residents have lived for more than 25 years.

The university sent out notices to tenants at 1921 Walnut St. in mid-April informing them that the Regents “propose to undertake the redevelopment of the property.” The April 17 letter said the tenants would be eligible for relocation assistance and would soon be contacted by the professional firm Autotemp to discuss the situation. The letter went on to say that no “imminent action” to evict people was contemplated.

UC Berkeley is planning to build a new 850-bed apartment complex for transfer and upper-division students on land it owns bounded by University Avenue, Oxford Street, Walnut Street, and Berkeley Way. In a January memo to the Regents that outlined how a donor wanted to pay for what is being called The Gateway Student Housing Project, officials pointed out that UC Berkeley owned five of the six parcels within those boundaries.

Since then, the owner of the apartment building, which currently has 12 people living in eight apartments, has offered to sell it to UC Berkeley, according to Kyle Gibson, the director of communications for capital strategies at UC Berkeley. The university has entered into a purchase agreement with the property’s owners, said Gibson. F.E. Forbes and Company, a 99-year-old Berkeley real estate investment management and private money mortgage lender, appears to be the owners through a subsidiary, Waterbury Properties, according to public records.

Construction on the project is projected to start in the third quarter of 2021, according to the letter sent to the Regents.

The news that they might have to move from their building took tenants at the apartment complex by surprise, according to Paul Wallace, who has lived there since 2015. After he returned home April 17 to find the UC Berkeley letter inside a Forbes and Company envelope taped to his door, he reached out to Mayor Jesse Arreguín and the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board to see if they could help stop the possible eviction. A rent board official told him that they were aware of the situation and would look into it.

UC Berkeley is a state institution and does not have to abide by Berkeley laws. Berkeley requires the reconstruction of rent-controlled apartments if any rent-controlled apartments are demolished. That action is “unlikely,” said Gibson.

Wallace blasted the university’s timing. (He is not alone as Berkeley has criticized the university for proceeding with a scoping session for its new long-range development plan during the pandemic. UC Berkeley has said that it had no choice about when to hold the virtual session on April 27 since it is following state laws for CEQA and the state has not granted any delays because of the pandemic and shelter-in-place orders.)

“We are in the middle of a world crisis, a national emergency and a state-wide lock-down,” Wallace wrote in an email. “All resources are being directed toward Covid-19 and Covid-19 relief efforts … EXCEPT UC – who is working toward displacing tenants and taking advantage of the pandemic and the crisis that we are currently in.”

Wallace said the tenants in the building have been communicating by phone and email to try and figure out how to respond to the news that the four-story building is being sold and the university is contemplating moving them. The building has two apartments on each of the four floors, he said. Each apartment has two bedrooms, oak floors, and wainscoting.

“It has the charm of an older building,” said Wallace. “We really enjoy living there.”

1921 Walnut Street was built in 1909 by William B. Heywood, according to a Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA) article by Daniella Thompson, an architectural historian. Heywood hired George L. Mohr as the architect. Mohr also designed the Acheson Physician’s Building at 2131 University Ave., which is now being incorporated into the Modera Acheson Commons, an apartment complex.

At that time, the street was named Home Street, so the apartment building was named Home Street Apartments, said Thompson. The name was changed to Walnut Street in the 1920s, she wrote.

Gateway requires demolition of 3 buildings, including Berkeley landmark

Next door to 1921 Walnut St. is 1925 Walnut, a traditional Berkeley brown shingle house that was used most recently to house OLLI, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. That building “has low occupancy, poor structural conditions, and a significant degree of deferred maintenance,” according to Gibson.

UC Berkeley garage on Oxford St. is slated to be torn down and replaced with new student housing. Photo: Pete Rosos

UC Berkeley has not yet decided to demolish these buildings even though it is “contemplating the development of the entire block,” said Gibson. Both Walnut Street buildings are listed on the state historic resources inventory, said Thompson. UC officials have said they intend to demolish the old Richfield Oil Service Station on Oxford Street, designed by Walter Ratcliffe in 1930, to construct the Gateway development. It is now a university garage.

“Oh, no,” Thompson said when Berkeleyside called her to ask for details about 1921 Walnut St. She lashed out at UC Berkeley. “All they are doing is destroying everything in sight. They’re demolishing our history.”

That block used to be lined with brown-shingle houses. Many of them have been demolished over the years but at least one was saved when Tom White and Dmitri Belser, local preservationists, moved it in 2017.

UC Berkeley eyes 13 sites for potential housing

UC Berkeley currently houses the lowest percentage of its students in the UC system. In 2017, Chancellor Carol Christ announced an initiative to change that by building housing for 10,000 students. The new long-range development plan says Cal will build 11,700 units of housing in the next 15 years. The plan lays out 13 sites that will be studied as potential housing spots.

Some of these sites are well-known, including the Gateway project, a proposed complex for People’s Park, the Oxford Tract, which currently houses the university’s agricultural tract, and a proposed housing site known as Upper Hearst.

Potential housing site for UC Berkeley. Graphic: UC Berkeley Capital Strategies

Other potential housing sites have not yet been broadly discussed. They include University Hall on University Avenue and Oxford Way, 2200 Bancroft Ave., which currently houses media relations, the old Anna Head School, Unit 3, 2000 Carlton St., the Foothill-Stern complex at the corner of Hearst Avenue and Gayley Road, and the Channing Ellsworth complex, which is currently occupied by a tennis court and parking lot. UC Berkeley will also study the Clark Kerr campus, as well as the nearby 9.26-acre hillside known as Smyth Fernwald, said Gibson.

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...