City files lawsuit against owner of vacant Haste Street lot

Levy Yun/Staff
The city of Berkeley filed a lawsuit against Ken Sarachan, the owner of the empty lot on the corner Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street.

The city of Berkeley has filed a lawsuit against the owner of the vacant lot at 2501 Haste St. nearly four months after the City Council voted unanimously to foreclose on the lot’s nearly $641,000 lien.

The Sept. 6 decision by the council gave property owner Kenneth Sarachan two choices: either submit plans to develop the site on the corner of Haste and Telegraph Avenue or face legal action.

In the time between September’s vote and the filing of the lawsuit, Sarachan did make a response to the city, but it was “not a sufficient response,” according to City Attorney Zach Cowan.

The suit was filed Jan. 26 in the Alameda County Superior Court and lists both Sarachan and his wife, Laurie Brown, as defendants, whom the document claims might have a “community interest” in the property.

The full amount of the foreclosure now includes $503,034 for the property’s deed of trust as well as a $137,923.39 nuisance abatement charge, bringing the total amount to $640,957.39.

“It’s unfortunate that we have to do this,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington. “We would far prefer to have a proposal to build something there, but after all these years of waiting there’s a lot of frustration over having such an eyesore in such a central commercial area.”

Sarachan could not be reached for comment as of press time.

Sarachan’s lot has been vacant ever since the remains of the burned-down Berkeley Inn were removed at the city’s expense more than 20 years ago.

Sarachan — who owns various properties along Telegraph, including Blondie’s Pizza, Rasputin Music and T-Shirt Orgy — bought the lot from the city in 1994, assuming the lien owed to the city for the past cleanup.

In 2007, Sarachan submitted plans for the lot’s development for a building that would contain both commercial and private space and which he said would be “the greenest building in Berkeley.” The project, known as the “Pagoda building,” stalled in the planning process. Both Sarachan and the city have blamed the stagnation on a lack of cooperation from the other party.

“The City’s hope is that the property will be developed, as promised years ago. Failing that, it wants to recover the money that is owed,” said Cowan in an email.

Sarachan maintains that he has done everything he can to cooperate with the city and build something at the site. In 2006 he bought a lot adjacent to 2501 Haste St., which he planned to include in his building project.

In a letter sent to Mayor Tom Bates dated the day of the council’s Sept. 6 vote, Sarachan insisted that he had tried to cooperate with the city’s expectations for the property and implored the council not to foreclose on the lien.

“You know me well enough to know that I would spend all the resources necessary to provide a maximum defense of the contract in court,” the letter reads. “The result being that there would be no building or any progress for many years at the Berkeley Inn Site.”

Over the years, parties ranging from city staff to local business owners have accused Sarachan of purposely not developing the lot to hurt the business of Amoeba Music, which sits on the corner opposite the lot. Amoeba owner Marc Weinstein was working with the city to develop a building featuring commercial space and affordable housing when Sarachan bought the property out from under him in 1994.

The suit was served Monday via substitute service to the manager of Rasputin on Telegraph, according to Cowan.

No trial date has been set as of yet. According to court documents, the next scheduled event is June 12, when there will be a case management conference, which is a typical meeting between the judge, plaintiffs and defendants before the trial begins.

Deputy City Attorney Lynne Bourgault will handle the case.

Adelyn Baxter is the lead city government reporter.