Food Fight 

Oakland is possibly liable for tens of thousands of dollars for making a handful of tenants eat too much fast food.

If people can sue greezy restaurant chains for making them fat, why shouldn't low-income tenants be able to sue their landlord for forcing them to dine out in artery-clogging eateries? That's what at least fourteen tenants of Oakland's Alice Arts Center are doing right now. They're suing in small-claims court for between $3,500 and $5,000 each to recoup money they spent eating out because the landlord didn't fix their communal stove for more than a year.

The landlord in this case happens to be the city of Oakland; city museum officials serve as property managers. The lower floors of the historic downtown building house a four-hundred-seat theater, a charter arts school, and dance studios. The upper floors contain 74 tiny single-room occupancy apartments, none of which has its own stove.

One Alice Arts resident is a step ahead of his fellow arts-minded tenants, who are still waiting to have their cases heard in small claims court. Ahmanj Ahdej, a taxi driver and photographer, chose to go it alone while his Big Mac-eating fellows in the building dabbed their chins of secret sauce, fearing he'd miss the deadline to sue. He asked for $3,500 -- $10 for each day that he had to eat out while the stove was out of order. "I just got tired of eating Chinese food and pizza," he says. "It totally ruins your diet when you eat like that every day."

The small claims judge sided with Ahdej and ordered the city to pay him $3,500. The city, however, is appealing the small claims decision to superior court, where a hearing has been scheduled for April 29.

The Scarlet Letter: L

As Berkeley's Landmarks Preservation Commission reluctantly follows a mayoral task-force directive to reform the city's punitive preservation rules, the same hysterical preservationists are waging a dubious battle to save an old Southside house that even they admit isn't good enough to be a landmark. Five years ago, the LPC named the Blood House at 2526 Durant Avenue a "structure of merit" after preservationists learned that its owner, Ruegg & Ellsworth, wanted to demolish it and erect an apartment building in its place. The 1891 Queen Anne-style Victorian -- named for its original owner, Ellen Blood -- is Exhibit A in the argument for Berkeley landmark reform, which unfortunately is being left to the very people who need to be reformed.

A structure of merit, theoretically, is less important than a full-fledged landmark, but in reality it brands the site in question with the Scarlet L. The mayoral permit-streamlining task force has recommended either doing away with the designation or clarifying it, because it has the same practical effect as a landmark -- which, in the view of this columnist, is to make development of the site next to impossible. To wit: the long, silly saga of the Blood House. (Listen up, all you LPC apologists who claim the commission has the authority to stall demolition of a structure of merit for only six months.)

Ruegg & Ellsworth formally applied in June 2000 to demolish the "historic" house and build a five-story building with 44 apartments and ground-floor retail. City planners ordered the developers to do a full-blown environmental impact report, which they felt would be required under the California Environmental Quality Act, because the project would demolish a historic structure. That stalled things for two years or so. In the meantime, Ruegg & Ellsworth hired architectural historian Michael Corbett, coauthor of the book Designing Sustainable Communities, to assess the Blood House's historic importance. Contrary to the LPC's assertion that it was one of the last of its kind from the College Homestead tract, Corbett identified dozens of residential buildings remaining from the old tract, many of which haven't been remodeled over the years -- the Blood House itself has had several makeovers during its existence.

The environmental impact report subsequently found problems with the Blood House's designation as a historic structure: Because of alterations, it didn't look anything like it did in 1891. Nonetheless, the report concluded that demolition of the house posed a significant and unavoidable impact that could be mitigated by moving it somewhere else or documenting it with photos so future generations could yawn indifferently. The LPC condemned the report for not seriously considering alternatives to save the Blood House.

So, a few months ago, the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, the local hysterical preservationist society, hired an architect to draw up some alternative plans sparing the house. This delayed an official decision a few more months because Ruegg & Ellsworth had to evaluate and rebut BAHA's proposals, one of which didn't even meet current building-code requirements, says project manager Brendan Heafey. To run BAHA's numbers, the builder hired Patrick Kennedy, Berkeley's most prolific developer, who concluded that the proposals were the "financial equivalent of a personals ad. They put the best gloss possible on everything." Kennedy also questioned the feasibility of the preservationists' suggestion that Ruegg & Ellsworth build around the house. That, Kennedy said, would be like "redoing your living room with all your furniture still in it."

Last month -- after all these years of wrangling -- the zoning adjustments board all but killed the proposed apartment building by rejecting any plan that demolishes the Blood House. Interestingly, board member Laurie Capitelli, a developer who has had his own run-ins with local NIMBYs, is siding with development foes in this case. He reasoned that he couldn't make the necessary finding that building more housing, including seven affordable units, was more important than preserving a historic structure -- even one he personally found unremarkable. Capitelli, by the by, is running for the city council in a north Berkeley district with lots of landmark-lubbers.

The poor developers -- now there's an "only in Berkeley" oxymoron -- are planning to appeal their case to the city council. Then we shall see whether Mayor Tom Bates has the wrecking balls to stand up to the preservationists head-on -- and, yes Tom, that means Landmarks Commissioner Becky O'Malley, owner of the Berkeley Daily Planet -- instead of hiding behind a task force.


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