Ordinance Would Seek Upkeep for Vacant Lots

Photo: Vacant lots in Berkeley, often littered with trash and overgrown with weeds, may play host to criminal activity. City officials are drafting an ordinance to mandate upkeep on these lots.
Summer Dunsmore/Photo
Vacant lots in Berkeley, often littered with trash and overgrown with weeds, may play host to criminal activity. City officials are drafting an ordinance to mandate upkeep on these lots.

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Correction Appended

After 50 years of business in Berkeley, the Arts and Crafts Cooperative Inc. lost more than $12,000 in repair costs and equipment after an April burglary was staged from the unkempt, vacant lot located next door, directing local officials' attention to the issue of empty properties in the city.

These "blight vacant lots" are often littered with excess trash and uncontrolled vegetation, play host to homeless persons or criminal activity due to open access of the property and are visually displeasing, according to Berkelely City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, who added that these factors have a negative impact on surrounding businesses.

To combat these problems, Arreguin and other city officials are drafting an ordinance to mandate upkeep on vacant lots without structures, both in residential and commercial areas. The ordinance is in review at the city manager's office, but should be brought before the council before November, Arreguin said.

If approved, the ordinance could enforce regulations on property owners with structureless vacant lots similar to those enforced currently on property owners with building vacancies.

The ordinance would require owners of lots that are deemed to be a nuisance to construct and maintain a secure fence around the perimeter of their property, to post a "no trespassing" sign and also would authorize the Berkeley Police Department to enforce the no trespassing policy. Property owners who fail to comply with these requirements would pay a fee to the city.

"We need the city's tools so that (vacant lots) don't become fire hazards, safety hazards or criminal areas," Arreguin said.

Lisah Horner, executive director for the gallery, said plants in the vacant area behind her business were especially high in April when the break-in occurred, despite complaints and pleas she had made with the property owner.

"It didn't occur to us how vulnerable we were," Horner said.

But the business's vulnerability became clear on the morning of April 19 when burglars drove onto the empty lot from the back left side and broke into the gallery through its fence and glass doors.

Although all artwork remained untouched, the gallery's reception computer and Horner's personal computer were both stolen in the burglary.

"I have no doubt in my mind that if this lot had been secured, they would not have been able to access us that way," Horner said.

The gallery and building it occupies have been cooperatively owned since 1972, and support received from regular customers and community members has helped it make a full recovery since the incident, according to Horner.

"On top of the lot being a blight, we are unfortunately a good example of how a vacant lot can make businesses a victim," she said.

A business and property owner in Berkeley for the past 40 years, Ken Sarachan said the city's time-consuming and complicated building permit and business requirements are to blame for the number of vacancies within the city.

He said his plans to construct a building on an empty lot he owns, located on the corner of Haste Street and Telegraph Avenue, and open a "beer and books" business in the building formerly occupied by Cody's Books are being bogged down by city regulations.

Sarachan added that quota restrictions on the types of businesses within the city further hinder the ability of property owners to open new businesses on their vacant properties.

"They don't trust a free market in Berkeley," he said. "They might open too many yogurt stores and the world might end or something horrible might happen - like all the vacancies would go away."

Doris Moskowitz, owner of Moe's Books, which neighbors Sarachan's Telegraph property, said her father - the previous co-owner of Moe's - had supported plans generated by community groups to develop the vacant lot more than 20 years ago before Sarachan purchased it first.

"If my father were still here, I know he would be furious about it," she said.

According to Moskowitz, the ordinance will make it clear to property owners with vacant lots that they need to maintain their properties.

While Sarachan blames the city for his empty spaces, he acknowledges that lot and property vacancies can be a problem for the businesses that surround them.


Correction: Thursday, October 7, 2010
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Doris Moskowitz's father had plans to open a business on the vacant lot on the corner of Haste Street and Telegraph Avenue. In fact, he supported community plans to develop the lot.

The Daily Californian regrets the error.

Hailey Parish is the lead local business reporter. Contact her at [email protected]

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