Stagnant progress for businesses, tenants of building destroyed by fire

Derek Remsburg/File
The demolition of 2411 Haste took place on November 29, 2011, a week after the fire.

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A year after the city’s largest apartment fire in recent memory, much is still uncertain for the former tenants and the Telegraph Avenue commercial district.

Sunday marked the one-year anniversary of the five-alarm fire at 2441 Haste St., which destroyed a 39-unit apartment complex and displaced all of its 68 tenants.

Cafe Intermezzo and Raleigh’s Bar & Grill — the two restaurants located on the bottom floor of the complex — are still out of business, and an empty lot is all that remains on the site. Moreover, a lawsuit, through which some tenants are seeking restitution for their losses as a result of the fire, looms in the distance.

More than half of the building’s tenants filed a lawsuit in July against building owners Kenneth and Gregory Ent. The lawsuit, which is currently still awaiting a trial date, claims the landlords knew and did nothing about complaints concerning faulty electrical wiring and fire alarms in the building.

“At the heart of the lawsuit, we are alleging that the defendants, amongst other causes of damages, were negligent,” said Mary Catherine Wiederhold, the plaintiffs’ attorney. “They had a duty to make sure the building was habitable … they failed in that duty, and now they are liable for plaintiffs’ damages.”

An investigative report conducted by Berkeley Fire Department released in February concluded that the fire was accidental and “originated in or around the elevator resistors” in a basement room. No one was hurt in the fire.

Berkeley Fire Marshal John Fitch, the lead investigator on the scene, said the Haste fire was the largest he has personally encountered.

“To me, the biggest worry I had when that fire kicked off was there would be people in the building. Fortunately, everyone got out,” Fitch said.

But for many tenants, the lawsuit cannot make amends for the psychological impact of the disaster. Even to this day, a few tenants have said they still cry or have panic attacks when remembering their experiences.

“We saw pictures of the firefighters literally breaking (the complex) down, and it became more real,” said Cynthia Young, a former tenant and then-UC Berkeley senior.

The fire raged for about six hours overnight before it was contained, resulting in the collapse of the building’s roof and the destruction of the top floors. The tenants lost their savings, sentimental belongings and even beloved pets, and students lost all of their school materials three weeks before their final exams.

“I was really lucky. My family was really nice about helping me out in replacing everything,” said UC Berkeley junior and former tenant Erin Lindsay.

Among the possessions she lost, Lindsay said she will never get back the two cups that she got from Hungary and an engraved necklace that was given to her when she was born.

However, Lindsay does not want to emphasize the loss of material possessions in the aftermath of this experience but rather hopes to put the ordeal behind her.
“I just wanted to move on, and I knew (the lawsuit) would be a really long, drawn-out process,” Lindsay said.

In the weeks following the fire, the lower levels of the complex underwent a partial demolition process after the complex was deemed structurally unsound. Plans to set up temporary tent structures for the restaurants were submitted to the city in January but were abandoned, and the lack of progress on the lot has contributed largely to lagging business in the area.

“Haste Street has been affected very much in the afternoon because of the lack of Cafe Intermezzo,” said Al Geyer, chair of the Telegraph Merchants Association and owner of Annapurna. “The lack of Raleigh’s has depressed the turnout at night.”

City spokesperson Mary Kay Clunies-Ross said the building owners have not submitted any new plans to redevelop the property.

However, Geyer said that Off the Grid — a food truck event that began weekly visits to Haste Street in July — has increased commercial turnout for the area on Thursday nights. Still, the block is not bringing in as much business as it did before the fire, he said.

Though progress has been slow, many of the former tenants say that one year has made a significant difference in their lives.

“I have a job now, and I’m able to manage on my own,” Young said. “I definitely wouldn’t be able to say I (have gotten) everything back now. I’m definitely upset that it happened. I have moved on.”

Contact Alyssa Neumann at [email protected].