At its regular meeting Tuesday, Berkeley City Council heard testimony from dozens of city residents in support of Samuli Seppälä, a wealthy artist who purchased the derelict Hillside School property to use it as his private residence.
After it was sold by Berkeley Unified School District and subsequently abandoned by its new owners because of its cost-prohibitive seismic rehabilitation needs, Seppälä purchased the school in 2018 with the intention of living there. Among the proposed alterations are the installation of a roof deck with an unenclosed swimming pool and hot tub and conversions of former classrooms into noncommercial art studios, which Seppälä plans to make available to local artists.
“How lucky we are to have the opportunity to have something like that in our community,” said City Councilmember Susan Wengraf during the meeting. “I feel like I’ve grown old with this property on my shoulders, and I can’t tell you how delighted I am to not have to carry the burden anymore.”
The appeals against Seppälä were filed in December 2019 by the Hillside Path and Playground Preservation Association, or HPPPA, an unincorporated group of residents who live near the Hillside School property. The appeals alleged the proposed modifications would leave the school’s playground and a well-known path that bisects the property vulnerable to closure.
The appeals also alleged the permits would grant Seppälä the right to prohibit public use of the path, which could create a public safety problem in case of an emergency, though Seppälä has said he intends to keep the path open to the public. Bollards, debris and other barriers obstructing the path’s use have already been removed since Seppälä moved in.
“The Sidewalk and Playground have been a defining part of the surrounding neighborhood for nearly a century, and they have been open to the public throughout that entire time,” said HPPPA attorney Rebecca Davis in an email to City Council. “Not only would losing public access to these areas change the character of the neighborhood, but it would also create public safety risks in the event of a fire or earthquake.”
Neighbors in attendance said they would not plan to use the property — which is said to rest on top of or near the Hayward Fault — to evacuate during an emergency, adding that they would be comfortable with simply taking Seppälä at his word that the path would be left open.
City Council ultimately voted in favor of denying the appeals against Seppälä, with all voting in support with the exception of City Councilmember Cheryl Davila, who abstained.
“This owner has already agreed to let the path be used for the public and has removed physical barriers that block access,” said Mayor Jesse Arreguín during the meeting. “I’ll take his commitment that it be used for continued public access.”
During the meeting, City Council also passed a resolution authorizing the issuance of $38 million in Measure O bonds to finance the acquisition and improvement of affordable housing units in the city. Measure O, which was approved by voters in 2018, authorizes the issuance of $135 million in general bonds to create and preserve low-income housing.
The $38 million approved Tuesday night is the first installment of Measure O funding and, according to Arreguín, will fund six affordable housing projects — creating between 450 and 500 individual units throughout the city.
City Council also voted to approve a referral to the Public Works Commission, tasking them with developing a plan to install street lamps to areas around the UC Berkeley campus, which will be identified through input from key stakeholders.
“I can tell you as a woman of color, I don’t feel safe walking home at night,” said campus senior and ASUC Local Government Relations Director Somya Jain during the meeting. “Lighting is a public safety issue.”