Under the Radar
How the undocumented repurposing of buildings is one of the biggest challenges faced by the enforcement community
BY ANGELO VERZONI
FROM THE OUTSIDE, the building looked like a run-of-the-mill disused warehouse. Sitting on a crowded block in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, adjacent to an auto body shop, the structure’s cracked concrete walls and wide windows were emblazoned with graffiti. Inside, however, the building told a different story.
The warehouse, known locally as the Ghost Ship, had been converted into an unpermitted residence and performance space for artists. Makeshift interior walls divided a warren of living, working, and performance areas; a staircase made partially of wooden pallets connected the two floors of the 10,000-square-foot space. Musical instruments, artwork, antique furniture, and other collectibles were amassed in hoarder-like fashion, creating a claustrophobic, mazelike atmosphere. In addition to the clutter and makeshift nature of the building’s interior, there were no sprinklers or smoke alarms and no proper exits or signage. In nearly every way, the Ghost Ship was primed for a disastrous fire.
On December 2, 36 people died in a late-night fire there while attending an unpermitted electronic music performance and dance party. Investigators are still looking into the cause of the fire, and city officials have said criminal charges are possible. The Ghost Ship fire is the deadliest blaze in the United States since 100 people died in the Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, Rhode Island, in 2003, and the deadliest ever in Oakland.
The fire also sheds light on an issue fire safety officials have recognized as a problem for some time: the undocumented repurposing of buildings, such as the conversion of old warehouses into residential or assembly occupancies. But it’s a problem that can be hard to contain, NFPA President Jim Pauley explained in an interview with NFPA Journal.
“It can fly under the radar of enforcement,” Pauley said of undocumented changes in building uses. “Folks in the enforcement community will tell you that this is one of the biggest concerns they have in front of them.”
The problem is complex, Pauley said, because there are many reasons building owners or managers might change the use of a space without taking the proper steps to ensure it’s safe. One owner might do it intentionally, he said, to avoid paying the costs associated with the code requirements for a new use, such as the addition of sprinklers, while another owner might do it without knowing any better.
Whatever the reason, changing a building’s use without addressing life safety issues can put lives in danger, and the more people are aware of this—from owners and managers of buildings to the people who live in, work in, or visit them—the better, because code enforcement and compliance is a group effort, said Pauley. “The enforcer is only one component of the enforcement and compliance system,” he said. “The compliance system works best when all of the stakeholders recognize their obligation to notify the city of the change of use of an occupancy. It’s about the obligation to pull the required permits in the interest of life safety.”
OFFICIAL DESIGNATION, UNOFFICIAL USE
The building had not been inspected in 30 years, reports show, and Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed, an NFPA board member, said her department has no records of complaints about the building, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The building was not listed in the fire department’s database of properties requiring state-mandated fire inspections because, as far as the department knew, it was nothing but an empty warehouse, according to Deloach Reed.
A central characteristic of these properties, though, is the discrepancy that can exist between their official designation and their unofficial use. The fire department’s assessment of the building “struck some people as odd, given that the Ghost Ship’s Fruitvale district neighbors were well aware that people were coming and going from the building and that parties were a regular thing,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported. “It seemed even more odd that such activity went unnoticed by the fire station that’s located just a block away.”
Images of the Ghost Ship interior prior to the fire, showing the dense construction and accumulation of objects. The building had no sprinklers or smoke alarms. Photographs: Tumblr
Laws governing code inspections further complicate the issue. In California, for example, an inspector cannot enter a property unless admitted by an owner or resident. Just days after the fire, several former Ghost Ship tenants told The New York Times that when the building’s owner would stop by, the building’s managers would tell tenants to pack away their bedding and cooking supplies to make it look like no one lived there.
Oakland city officials have asked NFPA to assist them in examining enforcement and related topics that could help the city prevent this kind of fire from happening in the future. Ray Bizal, senior regional director for NFPA, was one of a trio of NFPA staff members who spent three days touring the Ghost Ship site and meeting with city officials following the fire. Bizal said he is confident fire officials nationwide will be watching to see what comes of the partnership. “There is acknowledgement that undocumented change of use in occupancies is widespread,” he said. “People in the fire service want to get their heads around what might be going on in their jurisdictions.”
In a more general sense, the Ghost Ship fire serves as a reminder that the public must not become complacent about the danger of fire. “We’ve done a great job over the decades of reducing the number of fires and fire deaths, and it can be easy for people to simply believe that a fire won’t happen,” Pauley said. “But as we see all too often, when fires do occur they can be deadly and disastrous.”