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Berkeley school may become 50,000-square-foot home for tech mogul

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Founder of Finnish shopping site hopes to convert historic property into a giant house with private art studios

A Tudor building with a white facade, red eaves, and high arched roof. Photo by Sanfranman59

A tech tycoon from Finland hopes to convert the abandoned Berkeley Hills school he bought in 2018 into an elaborate personal residence—and the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board just gave him the green light.

Berkeleyside identifies the owner of 1581 Le Roy Avenue as Samuli Seppälä, founder of the online shopping site Verkkokauppa (“Verkkokauppa” is a Finnish word meaning “catalog”).

A historic Tudor structure dating to 1925 and designed by noted architect Walter Ratcliff Jr., Hillside Elementary School vacated the building in 2017, due in part to the cost of bringing it up to seismic code.

A sales flyer notes that the 117,500-square-foot property originally listed for $7.25 million, before falling to $6.87 million.

According to the plan submitted to the Berkeley zoning board at last week’s meeting, Seppälä aims to convert the vacant elementary school into a residence with “the approximately 50,000-square foot main building as a single-family residence and accessory dwelling unit.”

The in-law will measure out to 800 square feet, which would leave the bulk of the building as a main residence.

Seppälä also hopes to turn eight of the old classrooms into art studios “for the private use of the property’s residential occupants and their guests.” Plans also include a swimming pool, a hot tub, a roof deck, and an elevator, as well as converting some of the interior space into a garage.

Although the building remains abandoned and requires seismic upgrades that the renovation would provide, the overhaul would be a potentially sensitive one; as the proposal notes, the property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and was designated as a city landmark in 1982.

Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the redesign in August, but the Berkeley City Council will have final say.

Berkeleyside also says that area neighbors fret about the fate of a key pedestrian path that crosses the property—which could serve as an emergency evacuation route during a fire or other disaster—fearing that the Finnish billionaire might shut the public out once his dream home is complete.

Despite these concerns, the zoning board approved the renovation on an 8-0 vote, with board member Dohee Kim abstaining.