Lawsuit against new Berkeley demolition ordinance dismissed by judge

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Michael Drummond/File

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U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer dismissed most of a lawsuit against the city of Berkeley on Monday, ending a legal battle regarding the vacant building on 2631 Durant Ave.

Clifford Orloff, the managing partner of OPHCA, which is the company that owns the building, filed the lawsuit in June 2016. The lawsuit questioned the legality of a new demolition ordinance that requires developers who demolish rent-controlled units to either replace the units or pay a fee.

Breyer dismissed most of Orloff’s complaints as baseless, bar the cost of the fee, which has not yet been set, according to Councilmember Jesse Arreguin. Orloff said, however, that he plans to refile.

Orloff originally bought the building in 2012 because he believed it would be a good investment but quickly saw it needed major renovations.

“When we bought it, it was in terrible shape,” Orloff said. “We saw that the problems were beyond fixing.”

While the city agreed the building needed repairs, it determined that repairs could be made, and therefore, the project and potential demolition were stalled.

According to Arreguin, the law at the time the demolition was first brought up made such projects difficult. He said the building is currently rent-controlled, demolition would remove that status and the owner was not doing enough to mitigate the loss of these housing unit.

Arreguin said the new demolition ordinance adopted this past year has allowed the project to move forward on the condition that OPHCA replace the affordable housing units, either by paying the unspecified fee or by ensuring some of their units were rent-controlled as before.

“(The city) adopted the ordinance and said the fee will be set based on a study the city will conduct,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington. “We’re having a professional evaluate what is a reasonable range.”

Worthington said in an email that a meeting among those involved in the case was still held, even after the lawsuit was dismissed, as the meeting had been planned weeks in advance and it could have been possible to appeal or reach a compromise. Neither an appeal nor compromise was made in the closed session this past Tuesday.

According to Worthington, the units that Orloff is talking about removing, however, are rent-controlled units that local students did live in when the building was habitable. Worthington said Orloff should not remove these units and instead renovate them to allow for students to live in them again.

Worthington added that many students testified for the very demolition ordinance, and the fee that comes with it, that OPHCA is currently fighting.

Orloff said he plans for the building to create more affordable housing for students through a rent scholarship that would work with the school.

“Students in low-income families are not eligible to rent affordable housing … any dependent students are not eligible,” Orloff said. ”We’ll basically mass lease several units, (it is) essentially enough housing for eight students and they wouldn’t pay anything.”

Contact Michael Lee at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @_HyunkyuL.