Sequoia Building Demolition Likely,
Say City Officials;
Not All Residents Accounted For

By Steven Finacom
Saturday November 19, 2011 - 05:06:00 PM
Steven Finacom
Steven Finacom
Steven Finacom
Steven Finacom
Steven Finacom

At a press conference held this afternoon on a closed-down Haste Street with the still smoldering Sequoia Apartment building in the background, Mayor Tom Bates, City Manager Phil Kamlarz, and Assistant Fire Chief Gil Dong said that it hasn’t been fully established whether all the occupants of the building got out during the five alarm blaze, and that the historic building, constructed in 1916, will probably be demolished in the immediate future. 

“We are not totally convinced that everyone is out of there”, Bates said. City Manager Phil Kamlarz added that the City is trying to obtain a list of tenants living in the apartments, and that the Rent Board should also have records since the units are registered. 

“This building has a history of having casual tenants”, Assistant Berkeley Fire Chief Gil Dong said. “We’re working with the building owner to get a final count.” They emphasized that there are not any reports of specific missing persons, but that some of the residents were apparently out of town, and the City hasn’t yet been able to establish how many people lived in the building and where they all are now. 

Kamlarz encouraged all the tenants of the building to call the Fire Department at 510-981-5900, so the City can prepare an accurate accounting of the number of residents and there current whereabouts, and also offer assistance. 

The fire destroyed or made 39 apartments unoccupiable, and also damaged and closed businesses on the ground floor including the popular Café Intermezzo and Raleigh’s Bar and Grill; the latter business would probably have been packed Saturday evening with Cal fans watching the Big Game being played at Stanford Stadium. 

Instead, the interior was dark, some windows were broken, and water was rushing out onto Telegraph Avenue from under the doors of Raleigh’s. “This is still actually an active fire”, said Dong. “We have void spaces that we can’t get into.” 

In addition to the five story Sequoia Building, the adjacent one story brick structure to the north housing Thai Noodle restaurant is closed and the City has evacuated a six unit apartment building immediately to the west of the Sequoia, on Haste Street. They were not damaged by the fire, but both are in what the City regards as a “collapse hazard zone” adjacent to the damaged building. 

The City representatives said they were working to restore business, pedestrian, and vehicle access on Telegraph Avenue and surrounding streets, but that it would be days, and could be weeks, before traffic and street access is back to normal. 

Progress of the Fire 

Dong said that the first alarm to the Berkeley Fire Department came at 8:48 pm, as a result of the alarm system going off in the building. “The first call we got was actualization of the fire alarm system.” One engine and one truck company responded from Station #5 on Shattuck Avenue. 

They found “light smoke”, initially, he said but when they “got inside saw a heavy fire.” The alarms escalated, with a fifth alarm being called at 9:32 pm. Fire companies from Berkeley, Oakland, Albany, and the City of Albany ultimately responded, Dong said, with additional crews coming from an Alameda County station in San Leandro, and from the County-run fire station at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the hills above the UC Berkeley campus. 

17 fire companies were involved from those agencies, as well as incident commanders who responded from several other cities. Dong said he had no reports of firemen or women injured in fighting the blaze. 

This afternoon, there were two Berkeley companies remaining on the site and they would stay there to monitor still-smoldering portions of the building, Dong said. Behind the press conference a Berkeley truck raised a ladder at the intersection. 

One of the Berkeley companies that responded had been routinely monitoring the annual 7:00 pm Big Game Bonfire Rally in the Greek Theatre, on the eastern edge of the UC Berkeley campus. 

“Early on we had crews inside”, Dong said, but the fire was “running up chases” (vertical open spaces that convey mechanical systems between floors) and spread rapidly in the older building. “Within half an hour we had fire on three floors.” There were crews from Oakland in both of the main stairwells of the building, he said, trying to prevent it from spreading. 

“We have floors missing from the second and third floor”, he added. At present, the Fire Department is monitoring the building from the outside, but “we’re not going in.” 

The fire appears to have started in a lower, basement, area of the building Dong said, but given the structural condition there’s “a high probability that we won’t be able to search that area” where the fire started and investigate the cause in detail. “It’s unlikely. We still have an ongoing fire.”

Dong said there was little chance that residents or business owners would be able to enter the building to recover any unburned belongings. It’s “an unreinforced masonry building, (there’s) a wall that’s bowing, and it’s been burning for 16 hours”, he emphasized. 

“In my career I would characterize this as my biggest fire” after the 1991 Berkeley / Oakland Hills firestorm in 1991, Dong added. 

The building had a two alarm fire earlier this year that did some damage to the top of a stairwell. Dong said he knew of that fire, but “I don’t have any information about any (fire) inspection issues with this building.” The Daily Californian had reported in its coverage of the fire that “Residents said an inspection was done last week to replace batteries in the fire alarms, while the general safety inspection on Friday was to checked for things such as windows opening and closing.” 


Demolition Predicted 

Bates seemed fairly certain the building would be quickly demolished. “We’ll be taking this building down shortly”, he said at the beginning of the press conference. “It’s been deemed to be unsafe.”

“There will be two vacant lots here shortly”, Bates said, alluding to the old Berkeley Inn site across the street, where another historic residential building was demolished after 1980s and 1990s fires. 

“Our hope is out of this we can rise again and have a really wonderful development on both of these corners”, Bates continued. “As soon as we can we’d like to demolish that building”, he emphasized. 

Kamlarz clarified that the City had not yet made a demolition decision. “We are working with the property owner”, he said, and would contact insurance companies as well. “Our hope is that the property owner will cooperate”, Bates said. 

Kamlarz said that the building is currently red tagged, meaning its unsafe, but “the engineers haven’t been able to get inside yet” to evaluate its structural condition. 

“It’s a call from the building safety folks” as to whether a demolition is necessary, he added. “It’s just a safety call right now.” After an engineering evaluation, the next step would be a determination by the Acting Building Official on whether the building needs to be demolished. 

Bates, however, framed his comments with the expectation that the building would be quickly torn down. 

Dong said if there was a demolition, “we want to do it as soon as possible.” “This represents a structural hazard and we have to keep the street closed.” Telegraph was closed at both Dwight and Channing, and City crews were putting up barriers during the press conference. Haste was closed between Bowditch and Dana. 

Normal traffic access had resumed on Dwight Way, which had been closed east of Telegraph during the fire. “By Monday we will be able to reassess”, the streets situation, Dong said. But “the street closures will be days”, and possibly weeks, depending on demolition plans. 

It sounded likely that the street frontage immediately adjacent to the building on both Telegraph and Haste would be kept closed, although Dong said that one lane of northbound traffic might be restored on Telegraph soon. 

The Telegraph business community has been gearing up for the holiday shopping period, with the Telegraph Avenue Holiday Street Faire scheduled to open on December 16. Telegraph north of Dwight is traditionally closed to vehicle traffic during six days in December, and filled with crafts vendors and entertainment. 

One of the nearby businesses, “Café Mediterreaneum was very helpful with providing assistance to the firefighters last night”, Dong said. “We’re grateful for the merchants and residents on this block.” He said “we will try to get foot traffic up to Haste (along Telegraph) as soon as possible. No vehicles.” 

Pedestrian access would allow the businesses on the block of Telegraph south of Haste to reopen, including Amoeba Records on the corner diagonally across from the Sequoia Apartments. 

Dong said the City was working with AC Transit to figure out temporary rerouting of bus service in the immediate Telegraph area. 

Red Cross 

John Tulluck from the Red Cross, Alameda County, said that his agency had received a call at 9:30 last night and was “on scene before 10:30.” Friday night they talked to 30-35 residents displaced from the building and “the majority of them were able to find their own housing” for the night. The Red Cross accommodated eight fire victims in hotel rooms overnight. 

He said that the people the Red Cross had assisted “fit the neighborhood” demographics, but he was unable to provide details on the background of the displaced for privacy reasons. Other reports have indicated that many of the building residents were UC Berkeley students. 

Tulluck said that on Sunday, from 9-4, the Red Cross would have a large RV functioning as a mobile service center parked in the vicinity of Haste and Telegraph, and anyone who needs services as a result of the fire should look for it. Displaced residents can also call the Red Cross at (510) 595-4441. 

Tulluck said that anyone interested in donating to support the fire victims should go to RedCrossBayArea.org. There’s a “big blue donate button” on the website, and he said he thought it would be possible to specify that donations go to support those displaced by this particular fire. He said that because the Red Cross provides much of its assistance in the form of debit cards, it’s better for them to receive financial donations rather than gifts of items like blankets or clothing. 

Kamlarz said that the City Council had just passed a new ordinance strengthening relocation assistance provisions for tenants displaced from their housing. “Council did the second reading last week”, he said. “Theoretically it takes 30 days for it to go into effect”, so it might not benefit the tenants displaced last night. City staffers are checking, Kamlarz said. 

Rent Stabilization Board Chairperson Lisa Stephens, a strong proponent of the relocation ordinance, told me that she felt opposition from the Berkeley Property Owner’s Association had delayed its adoption.