Fresno is home to a number of empty warehouses and commercial buildings. A growing arts community also has roots in the heart of town, with artists choosing cozy studio spaces to do their work, and for many, nearby apartments to lay their heads.
So it’s not hard to imagine a situation in Fresno like the Dec. 2 fire that killed 36 people in an Oakland warehouse that had been illegally converted into studios and living spaces.
“This can happen anywhere,” warned Fresno fire marshal Ted Semonious.
That said, Fresno has key differences: Real estate is cheaper, so rents are lower and crowding does not happen like in the Bay Area. And the city has an active database keeping track of inspections. The Oakland building had not been checked in three decades.
Since Dec. 2,, the Fire Department has received calls from concerned residents about unsafe storage buildings in downtown Fresno. (The term “storage” is used by the city to classify warehouse-type buildings.)
During an unannounced inspection of the first building brought to the city’s attention, inspectors found a number of fire safety violations, Fresno fire Chief Kerri Donis said. Inspectors are following up on three to four more tips. Of the calls, there was only one report of someone living in the rear of a property, she said.
Fire violations could include electrical problems, improper use of extension cords, unpermitted construction, stacks of combustible materials, access and exit issues and inappropriate use of a building.
This can happen anywhere.
Fresno fire marshal Ted Semonious
Donis said she is unaware of any Fresno building being used like the Oakland warehouse known as the “Ghost Ship.”
For one thing, real estate conditions in Fresno are vastly different from Oakland. Fresno residents don’t face the skyrocketing housing prices that are sending Bay Area artists on a hunt for cheap housing alternatives.
Second, the Fresno Fire Department has a regular inspection program and database, going back about 20 years, that helps officials keep tabs on buildings throughout the city.
In Oakland, the three-story warehouse was converted into an artists’ cooperative, a concert-and-event venue and living spaces. The building was unsafe with stairways made out of pallets, crisscrossing electrical cords and a maze of hallways with few exits in case of an emergency. The fire started on the second floor and ripped through the building during a concert, trapping many of the visitors on the third floor.
The city of Oakland has come under criticism for its lack of inspections and action on the building, despite numerous complaints and police calls about the warehouse.
The Fresno Fire Department, which has about nine inspectors, conducts inspections based on building type and size. Annual inspections are conducted on hotels and motels, apartments, educational buildings, and businesses posing potential for danger to the public or for fire. Buildings with a lower threat of danger are inspected every other year. Vacant warehouses are inspected every four years.
Donis and Semonious admit that, in between inspections, the department “can’t control what occupants do.”
But “every time we get a complaint or a tip, we investigate,” Semonious said. “That’s what we do. We can’t let any complaint go uninvestigated.”
Squatters more the issue
Craig Scharton, manager of the Fulton Street Investors fund and longtime downtown advocate, doesn’t know of any problem buildings like the Oakland warehouse. He remembers one incident in 2012 when the city evicted tenants from the Gottschalks building on the Fulton Mall, where there was evidence the basement was used for underground parties. There was a stage and an exit was blocked, he said.
Every time we get a complaint or a tip, we investigate.
Fresno fire marshal Ted Semonious
In recent years, transients squatting in vacant homes and commercial buildings have been a problem, Semonious said.
“We’ve had that problem for decades, and we’re going to continue to have that problem until there’s no more homeless anymore,” Semonious said. “I don’t see a solution to that.”
Few large fires have happened in the Mural District, where several buildings are divided into permitted small artist studios – some the size of a walk-in closet.
Reza Assemi, a downtown Fresno developer who started the revitalization of old buildings into artist studios and lofts, credits the Fire Department with helping to keep Fresno buildings safe. Inspections are done regularly, Assemi said, and if something is out of place, it’s noted and fixed, he said.
Fresno is fortunate because housing prices are low and space at Broadway Studios, for example, only costs a couple hundred dollars a month, he said.
“Whenever you have creative hubs, you run the risk of spaces that might not be to code,” Assemi said.
“I feel like it’s just part of, not the housing crisis, but part of creative hubs,” he said. “People find spaces that can be creative and cheap, especially living in larger cities.”