Hillside School
The Finnish tech entrepreneur-turned-artist Samuli Seppälä will turn the old Hillside School at 1581 Le Roy Ave. into a residence and artistic space. Photo Kevin L. Jones

The Hillside School’s playground isn’t much to look at. Its play structures are tinged with rust and the basketball hoops date back to the 1940s. Yet Michael Scott’s 10-year-old grandson, who plays at the lot every time he visits, isn’t turned off its shabbiness.

“It doesn’t matter that it’s rusty and old,” Scott said. “He climbs a 10-foot cyclone fence to play in the playground and when he’s done, he reverses the procedure.”

The Scotts and other neighbors have used the 2-acre playground and an adjoining path that connects Le Roy Avenue and Buena Vista Way for decades. The Berkeley Unified School District closed Hillside School in 1980 and leased the property to various groups until 2014 so the area’s always been treated as public property.

But action by the Zoning Adjustments Board last week is bringing big changes to the property, some of which worry the neighbors. The board approved a plan by the Finnish tech entrepreneur-turned-artist Samuli Seppälä to turn the school into a private home.

Seppälä, who made his fortune from verkkokauppa.com, the Finnish equivalent to Amazon, intends to use the 50,000-square-foot structure at 1581 Le Roy Ave. as a personal residence. He will occupy two upper stories of the building’s southern wing, build a penthouse and create an accessory dwelling unit on the lower story of the central classroom wing, according to a staff report on the application. Seppälä also plans to create an artists’ colony on-site by converting eight classrooms to artists’ studios and constructing five work sheds on the playground for an “Art Park.” He plans to host two events a month with the artists who work there in the auditorium. Seppälä also intends to create 18 parking spaces and to construct a pool and hot tub on the roof. (Seppälä has refused requests for comment on this story.)

This work comes on top of work that Seppälä has already done to improve the property, including renovating the old flagpole.

“He’s very scrupulously rebuilt the place,” said Scott. “He hasn’t spared any expense. It’s just extraordinary.”

But Scott and other neighbors are concerned that Seppälä could eventually shut off some of the property to the public — even though the new owner says he won’t.

The future of the pathway on the property that links Le Roy to Buena Vista is of particular concern to some neighbors. It’s used frequently because the playground is so large; walking around it takes an extra 300 steps. Local residents also regard the path as a possible route during a disaster, such as the wildfire of 1923.

Seppälä has kept the path open since he acquired the property. He tells neighbors he likes it open. But he won’t give what neighbors want, which is an easement on the land, making it public property.

“I’m totally committed to preserving the path and keeping it accessible to the public. But because I’m the one responsible for the liability and property tax, I need to be able to control the time and manner of its use,”  Seppälä was quoted saying in a report to the zoning board.

Many neighbors expressed concern that Seppälä could sell the property and the new owners could cut off the path for public use. Still, Seppälä has stood firm in his views.

Berkeley officials support Seppälä’s point of view. According to the staff report prepared for the Zoning Adjustments Board, the city doesn’t want to deal with an easement and suggests the neighbors pursue it as a civil matter. In regards to keeping the path open in case of a fire, Berkeley Fire Chief David Brannigan wrote a letter stating that “While the property is well suited to be a temporary area of refuge for firefighters and possibly the public, it is private property, and we do not plan to count on it regardless of the use of the property.”

Along with trying to preserve the pathway, Scott pushed Seppälä to keep the playground

“[Seppälä] said among the reasons he chose to move to Berkeley was that it was kind of socialistic,” Scott said. “When I wrote to him at one point, I said, ‘Sam, you picked Berkeley because it was socialistic. Now if you think of society’s weakest, most powerless members, you got to think kids, right? Then you got to think: playground.’”

Seppälä bought the Hillside School property in 2018 for $5.5 million from the German International School of Silicon Valley. The school vacated the space because the property sits on the Hayward Fault. BUSD sold the land for that reason since its location disqualifies it from being used as a public institution. The Berkeley School and the Berkeley Chess Club also used the building at different times.

Walter Ratcliffe, the famed architect, designed the school in 1925. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Berkeley named the building a city landmark in 1982.

From left to right, architect Jerri Holan, Samuli Seppälä and property manager Veronica Peterson at the zoning board meeting about Hillside School on Thursday. Photo: Kevin L. Jones

The zoning board granted Seppälä his use permit Thursday after hours of public comment, much of it in support of Seppälä’s plans. While many of the people who spoke were Seppälä’s artist friends who described the Bay Area’s lack of affordable workspaces for artists, most were other residents of the Hillside neighborhood who were thankful that Seppälä bought the school in the first place.

“I am here because I have been so impressed with how the building and the grounds have been transformed. That transformation made me realize how important the beauty of historic buildings can be to a neighborhood and community,” 16-year Hillside resident Sondra Schlesinger said.

In the end, the board approved Seppälä’s plans with eight votes; one member, Dohee Kim, abstained. But it was Commissioner John Selawsky’s historical insight that hit on the issue that mattered most to the board. He pointed out that the property’s location on the Hayward Fault made it unsuitable for large-scale development.

“I sat on the school board when this property was sold,” said Selawsky. “We contacted and consulted with developers, consultants, etc., about how to build condos on it, or how to build housing. Nobody wanted to touch the place. No one. Times may have changed a bit but no one wanted to touch it for anything.”

Scott said he is contemplating an appeal of the board’s decision to City Council. He and some neighbors retained attorney Richard Drury to assist them in their fight. Drury challenged the plan as being out of compliance with CEQA guidelines but his remarks failed to impact the board’s decision.

playground and fence
Hillside School playground. Photo: Kevin L. Jones

“Hillside is now on way to being completely privatized despite 93 years of unimpeded public access,” Scott wrote in an email.

But Berkeley Vice Mayor Susan Wengraf, who represents the Hillside School’s district and lives across from the property, told Berkeleyside she wants her neighbors to move on.

“It’s not public. That’s the problem. But I think the real problem is that change is hard,” Wengraf said.

Kevin L. Jones

Kevin L. Jones is a journalist and audio producer who lives in El Cerrito. See more of his work at kevinljones.com.

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93 Comments

  1. I kind of love the idea that both these quotes from neighbor Michael Scott appear in the same article:
    “Hillside is now on way to being completely privatized despite 93 years of unimpeded public access,” Scott wrote in an email.
    [in reference to his grandson who visits] “It doesn’t matter that it’s rusty and old,” Scott said. “He climbs a 10-foot cyclone fence to play in the playground and when he’s done, he reverses the procedure.”

  2. When your wannabe Zuckerberg status, gained through hard work, cleverness, and a bit of luck, comes through, guaranteed the $$ will be used as YOU want.

  3. I am a 4th gen Laplander (Saami) living in Berkeley– and I am also an artist!! Do i get to come cause the Finns displaced my family??

  4. Apparently you do not understand that the property was sold. If you didn’t want it to be sold, then you should have done something while it was on the market for several years.

  5. Could we get Willard Pool sponsored by one of the wealthy tech companies whose employees are making Berkeley unaffordable for the middle class?

  6. One could dream about the Willard pool being bought and reopened by a rich person. Instead, more likely than not, yet another bond initiative will be put on the ballot by our beloved City Council, footed by, guess who, Berkeley homeowners, the Council’s favorite piggy bank. At least that’s what I read in one CC member’s recent email to constituents.

  7. Sounds like a familiar story. Don’t keep up with maintenance until it’s unusable. Maybe the Finn would also like to purchase a swimming pool (Willard), a city hall (city hall), a pier etc. The city doesn’t have any more for them

  8. This article is on SFgate, I have to say this wannabe Mark Zuckerberg what’s his name Seppälä? is exactly what is fundemtally wrong with our world today.. Hey how about some more inequality? if Seppälä had any resemblance of a soul he would donate 100% of this property to the community perhaps affordable housing or affordable art spaces..but fulfilling his ego palace in the hills is more important.

  9. Note: I think the easement applies only to the right of way, not to the use of the playground, under California law. Again, consult an attorney.

    I also think the neighbors would have a better chance of being successful politically if they just appealed the decision about the right of way, not about the playground.

  10. A little bit of legal knowledge is a dangerous thing. In this case, we’re talking not about adverse possession but about a prescriptive easement. California civil code section 1007 provides that you cannot acquire a prescriptive easement against public property. Case closed.

  11. If the city of San Francisco sold Dolores Park to a private entity then of course no one could go there.

  12. Or the city could ask for an easement as a condition of approving the project, as they did with the Montessori school — assuming, of course, that the ZAB decision is appealed to the council.

  13. The people who sold the property weren’t entitled to transfer the easement, since the easement is the collective property of the people who hold it, i.e. the public in cases like these. You can’t erase someone else’s equity just by ignoring them in a title transfer. That’s not how our laws work.

  14. Isn’t it reasonable that public use of publicly owned property can exist by right for as long as the property remains public, but that if the publicly owned space is sold by the responsible public agency specifically for private use, then that right is then sold and given up? If there were a time to get any easements or public use agreements, it would have been at the time the initial sales agreement was drafted and have it added to the title –

  15. So, its illegal and the City should enforce the law if he parks it on his property, but what if he parks it on the street and lives in it there? City won’t enforce the law then –

  16. That can be addressed with signs saying “do not climb fence” or putting up a fence with some sort of hostile design element. Climbing the fence is not the usual way of entering this playground. A kid who is going to climb a fence is going to climb a fence anywhere

  17. First, there’s also a whole playground not just a footpath; second, the equivalence lies in having over a century of public use/enjoyment (usufruct) of a space suddenly being denied.

  18. Really? I see many inhabited RV’s in Berkeley- why pick on the rich Swede? How does one know which laws to obey?

  19. I believe there is an exception (either in state or local code) to live in a temporary accommodation on site for a limited time (1 year?) during construction. The neighbors do seem very concerned about house trailers both here and in the new parking area (not without cause). I just realized this may make a heck of an AirBnB (of course the owner would need to live in the compound with his family, or else limiit the rentals to 90 days).

  20. They literally had to sue the city of Berkeley *twice* to get that project done. That’s my point!

  21. He does have nerve to:
    Park the RV in a location where it is illegal under Berkeley law.
    Live in the RV though it is illegal under Berkeley law.

  22. Very interesting. It sounds like it is illegal for him to park the RV there and live in it.

  23. The question is, as Pietro G. states, is whether the neighbors have a valid legal claim to maintaining public access based on its being a long-standing public through-way. I wouldn’t say it’s neighbors being unreasonable, it’s a question of what rights the public has per existing law. If the public has been enjoying use of the path since 1901, that is 118 years of consistent public use. It’s quite possible that that constitutes an easement according to the law. It would be like someone buying Mission Dolores Park in San Francisco and saying that nobody could go there. I think there would be a bit of pushback.

  24. I haven’t met him myself, but some of my neighbors have and say he’s a nice guy. The article states that he is “totally committed to preserving the path and keeping it accessible to the public” (even though he won’t grant a legal easement). From what I have observed (and from my own experience) he is, so far, keeping the path open

  25. I think it’s quite possible that this is an example if an “irrevocable easement” (but I’m not an attorney). If the upper range is 25 years, and ten is very common, well, I’ve been walking this path for over 40 years! In fact, I walked it this morning (and do every morning). So far nobody has come out to shake a stick at me and chase me off

  26. How is this guy pushing around the neighbors? The building and lot were for sale, he bought it, he feels nervous about the potential liability of people walking through his property. I just don’t see that as a major character flaw. If you are willing to allow the general public to walk across your property, then you are a person who is lucky enough to never have been involved in a lawsuit.

  27. I think those two things CAN co-exist, but the attitude (which is understandable, ie. nostalgia and loss) you express here, is not how I am reading the neighbor’s feelings. I guess it just seems extremely hypocritical that those who have been known to try and “claim” a view as their own personal property, now think a new neighbor should have to forfeit a portion of his own actual physical property.

  28. I don’t think so. I think there is probably an easement as a right of way under state law based on its long-term use as a right of way.

    The city can also require an easement as a condition of approval of the project – as it did when it approved the Montessori school on University Ave.

  29. Here’s what the Berkeley Municipal Code says:
    12.76.020 Use for human habitation prohibited–Exception.
    No person shall use or occupy or permit the use or occupancy of any house car or camper for human habitation within the City, provided that not more than one house car may be placed, kept and maintained in the rear of any single-family or duplex residential building and used for sleeping purposes only for not more than three successive nights in any 90-day period.

  30. I think the public has been using this right of way without explicit permission from the landowner since the school opened in 1901. This probably creates an irrevocable easement to use it is a public right of way — but as they say, “Consult an experienced attorney.”

    “Depending on state court decisions, irrevocable easements in the nature of a public right of way may be created by long-term public use (adverse possession), such as may occur with access to a river or lake. The time period is determined by state statute and may range from 5 to 25 years, depending upon the state. Ten years is a common time. If one does not want an individual crossing one’s land to later claim an absolute legal right to do so, it is important to obtain a signed document in which the individual acknowledges that she is receiving from the owner a limited revocable license to make this use, claims no ownership rights, and acknowledges that the use many be terminated at any time, for any reason, without prior notice from the owner. Consult an experienced attorney.”
    https://www.clta.org/page/article6/A-Legal-Introduction-to-Easements.htm

  31. I live in the neighborhood. I think the oddest chapter of Hillside School was its acquisition and then abandonment by the German International School. It was really great having a thriving school back in the neighborhood, but then, after fixing it up, they fled because of its location on the Hayward Fault. That is totally understandable not wanting a school there – but it was ALWAYS on the Hayward Fault, so why did they acquire it in the first place? It’s like they suddenly discovered something and freaked out, when anyone who knows anything about that school knows this fact. But I’d like to express my appreciation to the government of Germany for paying millions for a new roof for the school, it looks great!

  32. I think the neighbors are happy about it, generally. Since it can’t be built on (as explained in the article) the choices are this, or the building being abandoned and falling into ruin.

  33. The article itself explains why these lots will not be built on: “We contacted and consulted with developers, consultants, etc., about how to build condos on it, or how to build housing. Nobody wanted to touch the place. No one. Times may have changed a bit but no one wanted to touch it for anything.”

  34. the “entitlement” is based on long standing custom. those of us who grew up near there (and went to that school when it was still part of BUSD) have been walking through that path for decades. I think it’s reasonable to feel a sense of loss if it’s ever closed as a public through-way. for now it doesn’t seem like he’s planning to close it, but if he does, it is both his right, and it will be sad. Those two things can co-exist, I think

  35. I saw no mention of public classes. The plans are totally self centered on the owner and his “artist compound.”

  36. So your complaint is that the owner is parking a trailer on HIS property?

    Because, you know, it’s his property. He can park whatever he wants on his land.

  37. Imagine a stranger traipsing through YOUR property, and it’s the STRANGER who complains about being “intimidated”.

  38. You sure about that?
    Establishing a Prescriptive Easement
    To establish a prescriptive easement, a claimant must prove use of the property, for the statutory period of five years, which has been: (1) open and notorious; (2) continuous and uninterrupted; (3) hostile to the true owner; and (4) under a claim of right.

  39. TBH, I am having a hard time understanding the wealthy neighbors, all of whom have multi million dollar homes, feeling entitled to access someone else’s private property.

  40. Do the neighbors already have a lawyer looking at this? If, hypothetically, a real estate attorney were interested in helping look into easement rights, how would that attorney get in touch with the neighbors?

  41. It’s private property!!! You should have made your complaint when BUSD sold it and lobbied CoB to buy it for a park and the fact is they didn’t and wouldn’t do 1/2 of what this benefactor is doing.

  42. I’d say he already has -he pays property taxes and he’s improving the building and site. Sounds like he’s already being a good neighbor. In fact what pool of buyers are there to buy a property right on a fault line, much less historic property.

  43. @disqus_J68HFqdKxN:disqus based on the article and comments/ pics people have posted, there may be enforceable public easement rights to the path.

  44. According to the staff report prepared for the Zoning Adjustments Board, the city doesn’t want to deal with an easement and suggests the neighbors pursue it as a civil matter.

    When the Montessori School built on University Ave,, the city got an easement for a bike/ped path. Why aren’t they interested here?

    I think that when they say “the city doesn’t want,” they are talking about the city bureaucracy – not about the City Council. I suggest that the neighbors should appeal this ZAB decision to the Council asking for this easement. I expect that Councilmember Wengraf would champion the easement.

  45. Why not build them near UC, so students can live close to school and walk or bike to campus?

  46. Funny you should mention that. From an email in the current ZAB packet:
    The current owner has posted: “no public access”, and has obstructed the path with an airstream trailer which he is living in, and a large pick-up truck and often a dumpster and other heavy equipment. A guest in our house, recently returning home late at night, was startled when the owner jumped out of the trailer and gave him a hard stare. He felt intimidate.

  47. Why not build them near the jobs then. Maybe they will be approved faster across the bay and in the valley.

  48. So many people believe that this path will be maintained, but will it really? Seppälä already backtracked from his earlier assurances that the playground would be maintained. He has named the path after himself and at one point was blocking it with a large truck. Since he normally lives in Finland he might not be in Berkeley often enough to be bothered by a public path so close to this residence, but then again he could decide that he wants to deny public access. Or he might sell the whole thing to a more local tech bro who feels the same way.

  49. It’s great to see someone preserve a piece of history. Stop your whining and NIMBY attitudes. At least it won’t fall prey to some crazy city council idea to house, store, conduct, spend on nonsensical activities they are so famous for.

    Artist colony can have so many connotations but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. At least it will be done safely and not like the Ghost Ship situation.

  50. Seems like that’s not an objection from the owner so I’m curious whether you think de facto access is enough. Or do you think an easement is a worth a lawsuit?

  51. I wonder if Oxford’s location in a major landslide/earthquake zone “disqualifies it from being used as a public institution” as stated in this article. Who makes that call? All the more reason why the West Campus “temporary” relocation site for Oxford should have been completed by August 2019 as approved by the school board.

  52. As a neighbor living just up the road, my chief concern is continued access to the path from Buena Vista to Leroy.

  53. Beyond the flagpole… has the structure been retrofitted to withstand a major earthquake on the Hayward? Or, because it’s now a private property, does that no longer matter?

  54. Perhaps Mr. Seppälä will toss the neighbors a tuppence or two when he comes to the Bay Area for an occasional visit?

  55. I’d love for the city to have enabled another use; but give the situation (a landmarked building right on the Hayward fault) this is probably a likely result no matter what the zoning and permitting process.

  56. Some people will never be satisfied. I live nearby and think this is the perfect project for this neighborhood. My grandchildren also play at the playground, and, it would be nice to keep it as such but I am willing to give that up for the plans the owner has for the property. Hurray! Please bring in ceramic classes. Thanks.

  57. Fantastic. Room for artists? As long as the rent for them is reasonable. Why would neighbors have a problem with this??

  58. Yeah, that’s a real toughie: trading decades of increasing social acceptance for LGBTQ community and the 2015 Supreme Court verdict upholding same sex unions for a return to a simpler time when no one talked like a Valley girl.

  59. It is a perversion of the planning code when you can build a mansion with 900-square-foot bedrooms but they won’t let anyone build 900-square-foot duplexes on 5000-square-foot lots.

  60. I went to school there in the 1950s. We didn’t worry about earthquakes and all that nonsense. It was a great School. This was before anybody hated Columbus or talked about social justice, diversity, global warming, gender or LGTBQ issues. Mean kids would call me queer but I thought that just meant odd. Everything was binary but at least people didn’t talk like Valley girls.

  61. More than a bit ironic that this used to be filled with artists’ studios before the German school took over and evicted them.

  62. Neighbors should be happy with what they’re getting & make nice with this generous property owner who clearly sees a greater good opportunity.

  63. oh the trials and tribulations of the wealthy…
    maybe part of the property can be a safe RV parking site for some of our newer neighbors?