In October 2019, the Zoning Adjustments Board of Berkeley gave a Finnish entrepreneur-turned-billionaire the go-ahead to convert a vacated school in the Berkeley hills into his residence and non-commercial studios for artists.
Samuli Seppälä, the entrepreneur, made his fortune in the tech industry through founding Verkkokauppa.com, the Finnish equivalent to Amazon. Recent media on this topic has centered around blowback from the community, but it seems the controversy may have been magnified.
The property, which was formerly Berkeley Unified School District’s (BUSD) Hillside Elementary School, was closed by the school district in 1983 due to its dangerous location next to the Hayward Fault. The close proximity to the fault would be detrimental to the school and its students in the event of an earthquake. BUSD then leased the property on a multitude of occasions. Eventually, the district sold the property to the German International School of Silicon Valley, which occupied it until 2016. The German International School was then also forced to relocate its school due to the repeating seismic issues, which also contributed to the school board’s struggle with selling the property. The undesirable and unsafe location of the site was one of the main tipping points for the zoning board in granting Seppälä permission to go through with his plans. According to Berkeleyside, these plans include building a pool and hot tub on the roof, adding an elevator, and building art studios.
The Board granted these requests due to its gratitude in finally being able to sell the property. Marty Lorber, who has lived in the neighborhood for 23 years, said Seppälä’s plan is an “astounding project to convert most of the building interior into art studios for artists who at no expense … would work there.”
“Part of the open space would also be an open-air art studio. Well, that’s totally unique in the city of Berkeley,” Lorber added.
Though Seppälä has owned Hillside since he purchased it for $5.5 million from the German International School in 2018, the board only gave him the go-ahead to develop in October of this year, through an eight to one vote in favor. This decision is a victory for him and the artists who will have access to affordable workspaces, a rare find amidst the rapidly rising prices of the Bay Area. However, it has caused some blowback from within the community, which recent news pieces about these events have highlighted.
Since the property was not officially occupied for many years, the grounds of the school became a community space frequented by those in the neighborhood. A path cutting through the property provides an efficient alternative to walking around the campus, and some even view it as a possible emergency escape route. Many are worried that this access will be cut off. Though Seppälä has stated that he will keep the path open to the public and has taken down a fence to the playground, making it more accessible, some members of the community still have their doubts.
A Berkeleyside article highlighted the concerns of neighbors. The controversy continued in the nearly one hundred comments on the article, many of which are tinged with sarcasm and peppered with references to California civil codes.
However, it turns out that those not in favor could be in the minority. Many community members think that Seppälä’s estate will be a great addition to the neighborhood. They feel that the perspectives featured in articles were simply one-sided and leave readers to draw conclusions that unfortunately misrepresent the situation.
When asked if this issue has caused disputes within the neighborhood, Lorber responds with “Very, very minimal. I think most of the neighbors strongly support … what Sam Seppälä is doing for the neighborhood.” Another resident, Arron Sweeney, when asked if he has been affected by this controversy, said, “No, not at all. I think the biggest controversy for me is that [I don’t see] why someone would want to spend all this money on a house that’s sitting on the fault.” He said as he pushed his son on a swing on the Hillside playground. “I mean if they want to do it, go ahead, but it hasn’t affected the community at all. I think it’s better than having it sitting here empty.”
The undesirable and unsafe location of the site was one of the main tipping points for the zoning board in granting Seppälä permission to go through with his plans.
Seppälä himself is moving forward with construction. His cheerful Facebook updates began with the announcement of the purchase of the property: “Bought an old school in Berkeley, CA for workshop/makerspace, built in 1925. This should keep me busy for a while!” Other updates have included artifacts found on the property, workers transforming the rooms, and, most recently, a cat that broke in and set off the alarms.
Some citizens are contemplating an appeal to the board’s decision, while others are happily using the playground they no longer have to climb a fence to access. As this situation seems well on its way to being resolved, or at least to a point of no return in Seppälä’s direction, another Berkeley school, Oxford Elementary, is facing challenges similar to the ones that shut down Hillside. It is being forced to relocate after concerning results of a recent study showed that, in an earthquake, the whole campus could move twenty feet. Berkeley can only hope that the aftermath is not as long-lived as that of the Hillside campus.