Litigation from 2011 Haste Street fire concludes in settlement, plans for construction of new building

Christopher Yee/File

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More than two years after former tenants filed a lawsuit against owners of a Haste Street apartment building that was destroyed in a fire, the case has been settled, and construction of a new building has begun.

The five-story building at 2441 Haste St., which housed two restaurants and 39 apartment units, burned down in November of 2011 in what was called the biggest fire in Berkeley in 20 years. Afterward, more than half of the 68 former tenants filed a lawsuit against building owners Gregory and Kenneth Ent, alleging that they neglected various problems with the building.

Litigation began in August 2012, and the mediation determining how much each tenant would receive was in February.

Peter Mun, who lived in the building for six months, said that his $12,000 settlement — $8,000 after lawyer fees — was far less than what he had lost in the fire but a fair amount given that he had no proof of purchases for his belongings.

“I wasn’t expecting to get anything in the first hand, so (the settlement) in itself was a blessing,” Mun said. “It would have been great if it was faster, but I knew it wouldn’t be a quick process, especially with the sheer size of the case.”

Former tenant Milad Yazdanpanah, who lived in the building for 13 years and led the tenants in filing the lawsuit, said he has felt no closure since the settlement and is “completely dissatisfied” with the attorneys’ work.

“Our losses weren’t valued at all what they should have been,” Yazdanpanah said. “They didn’t issue and honor any sort of payment for suffering, lost wages, adjusted rent to offset what people were paying before and what they have been paying. It’s only made me angrier now that the case is done and nothing can be done about it.”

Yazdanpanah said the owners were willing to pay the settlements up to the $970,000 they received from their insurance company. He believes the lawyers ought to have pushed harder for more and said several other former tenants agreed with his evaluation of the settlement. The tenants’ lawyers, Mary Catherine Wiederhold and Jeffrey Carter, declined to comment.

According to Mun, the lengthy litigation process can be attributed to trouble figuring out who was responsible for the fire. Although the tenants said the owners were at fault, the owners also alleged negligence by Paramount Elevator Corporation in installing elevator equipment and claimed that the Pacific Gas and Electric Company supplied excess electric power.

The building owners and their attorney Daniel McLennon did not respond to requests for comment.

A report released by Berkeley Fire Department in 2012 concluded that the fire — which started in an elevator room — was accidental but was unable to determine whether the fire began due to “mechanical malfunction or improper installation of associated elevator equipment.” The building had a history of faulty electrical wiring and fire alarm complaints, and tenants claimed that the owners had ignored their complaints.

According to Cayla Awalt, marketing coordinator for ROEM Development Corporation, the contractor for a replacement building, demolition of the site began in May, and a new complex is expected to be approved as safe for occupation in November of 2015.

Design plans were submitted by Charles Kahn, the building’s architect, for final review to the city’s planning and development board last year and detail a nearly 44,000-square-foot building with two restaurants and 42 apartment units.

“Telegraph Avenue is an integral part of Berkeley,” Kahn said. “I’m delighted that we’re now in construction on a new building that will bring some vitality and life to the street and fill this gaping hole with a building that has color and character inspired by the humans on Telegraph.”

Contact Anna Li at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @annajxli.