More on the Oakland Fire Tragedy


Yesterday I posted to this blog “The Oakland Fire Tragedy and Higher Education,” in which I tried to describe some of the economic factors that have compelled so many young artists and others in the Bay Area to live in often illegally converted warehouses and similar spaces while authorities turned a blind eye to various code and safety violations.  “No doubt enforcement will now intensify, at least for a while, but the problem will remain: where are these talented (and, for that matter, the not-so-talented) young people to go?” I wrote.

Today the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the converted Oakland warehouse, known as the Ghost Ship, had not been inspected for three decades, despite what neighbors said were numerous complaints about accumulated trash, graffiti and other blight.

Darin Ranelletti, Oakland’s interim director of planning and building, said inspectors went to the building on Nov. 17 and Nov. 18 in response to complaints about blight and an illegal residential structure in a lot adjacent to the warehouse.

He said an inspector had confirmed the presence of debris on the sidewalk, but was unable to gain access to the warehouse and issued a notice of violation. Records show that no inspector has actually been inside the building in the past 30 years, he said.

“We typically work with property owners to get permission to access to property,” Ranelletti said. “If they refuse, we would need a warrant from a judge.”

However, none of the complaints that the city received over the years about the Ghost Ship involved conditions inside the building, Ranelletti said.

The East Bay Times reports that artists living in similarly nonconforming spaces are now facing a backlash from city inspectors and rent-seeking property owners who would force them from their homes.

Painter and photographer Angela Scrivani has 27 days to vacate the West Oakland industrial warehouse space that she has lived in and used as a painting studio for the better of the past decade. And, some 13 blocks north, roughly a dozen tenants living in a converted machine shop in Oakland were served with a 30-day eviction notice Monday, according to four of the residents who spoke with the Bay Area News Group. The tenants said the building owners told them they fear for their safety. . . .

On Wednesday, a shouting match erupted in Oakland’s Jack London Square after a well-known restaurateur called a news conference to accuse a nearby warehouse of putting her business at risk by operating an unregulated and dangerous music venue. Artists at the gathering, some who lost friends in the Ghost Ship fire, in turn called the conference a “witch hunt” that would further marginalize and displace them from scarce housing options.

But there’s a large gap between what could be considered an unsafe space — such as the tangled menagerie of Balinese wood, furniture and artwork that fueled the inferno that doomed Ghost Ship’s victims — and buildings that are zoned one way but used in another and are therefore technically “illegal,” said artist Jon Sarriugarte.

Sarriugarte has, over the past several days, been working to recruit outside fire inspectors, architects and, in light of the recent evictions, lawyers to survey spaces and provide advice without residents of unpermitted spaces fearing backlash from the city or their landlords. He’s teamed up with Michael Snook of NIMBY, a DIY maker-space in East Oakland, and Max Allstadt, a carpenter and former audio engineer who lived in West Oakland for 13 years. . . .

At a news conference Wednesday, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf did not offer specific plans to help artists currently facing evictions but said she would reconvene and expand a task force to address affordable living and working spaces for artists. She promised the arts community would be part of the discussions as the city addresses code compliance and other issues. . .

A half-dozen other artists who live in converted industrial spaces acknowledge more could be done to make their own spaces safer. Sara Huntley, a former resident of the Vulcan, a live-work warehouse in East Oakland, said she frequented a number of converted industrial spaces throughout the city.

“I’ve never felt as unsafe anywhere as I did (in the Ghost Ship),” she said, echoing many artists’ words that the space was a “worst-case scenario.”

When Huntley moved into the Vulcan, the property management company that owns the warehouse had just finished installing sprinklers. Ren Dodge, a photographer who has lived there for 10 years, said when that happened, his rent rose by 10 percent, a significant increase in part mitigated by the sheer number of people living in the more than 50 apartment units.

For smaller spaces, the cost of bringing a building up to code can be insurmountable, said Cheryl Edison, a consultant who works with cities to help them revamp older properties. Many Bay Area cities have outdated zoning restrictions that make it both time-consuming and incredibly costly to rezone properties, meaning only well-heeled developers can afford to do it, she said.

“Every effort that individuals make to ask for permission gets one very short answer — ‘No,’” Edison said. “People want to do the right thing, but the level of collaboration is not there.”

The Oakland Noodle Factory in West Oakland is an example, said Francis McIlveen of the Northern California Land Trust (NCLT). Dana Harrison purchased the former noodle factory in 1999 with the hope of converting it to a live-work space for her fellow Burning Man comrades — and then spent years mired in a morass of permits, plans and red tape. After draining her time and resources, she sought the help of the community land trust, which purchases and rehabilitates affordable housing.

NCLT secured a $4 million construction loan, gutted and rehabbed the space with solar voltaic panels, concrete floors with radiant heat, extra noise insulation for units that house drummers and more, McIlveen said

When the housing market crashed in 2008, it took the noodle factory with it. McIlveen said the bank foreclosed on the property just as they were starting to lease it out. . . .

For the artists facing evictions, it’s not just the homes they are losing, it’s their community. The spaces are more than buildings, they are fertile incubators for art forms credited with putting Oakland on the map as an arts hub, and, more recently, as a tourist destination.

“These places are not made by real estate developers or land owners. They don’t exist because someone is looking to make a profit; they are not profitable,” said Tanya, an architect and “flow artist” (or dancer), who lives in the former machine shop in West Oakland. “We need to be able to make them exist, and the Oakland planning (department) needs to … allow spaces like this to exist safely.”

As of this morning, 31 of the 36 victims had been identified.  The Chronicle continues to run brief but heart-rending profiles of the victims.

UPDATE: The East Bay Times has published a powerfully moving group portrait of the victims: “They were musicians, fans and artists, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who loved the weird, the surreal and each other. This was no random gathering of people who saw a flier about a party. To many, this was a surrogate family, an eclectic group that had spent many similar nights together, dancing and making music. They knew and admired each other’s work, played gigs together, ran sound and video for each other’s shows.”

And don’t miss this incredible piece; painful to read but the writers deserve a Pulitzer:

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