MCA Executive Vice President pens important opinion piece on the necessity of building owners to adhere to NYC life safety code requirements. Lessons from Oakland’s fire tragedy for NYC property owners at Crains New York Business.
The recent deadly Ghost Ship warehouse blaze in Oakland was one of the worst structural fires in this country in the past decade, claiming 36 lives. As investigations move forward, one of the key questions forensic investigators will address is what safety measures could have been taken to prevent such a loss of life?
In the wake of this tragedy, there have been nationwide crackdowns on illegally occupied buildings and venues in cities including Baltimore, where dozens of artists were evicted from a building called the Bell Foundry, and Denver, where inspectors discovered fire-code violations at the popular venue Rhinoceropolis. There have also been investigations of event spaces in Nashville, Dallas, Austin, New Haven, Indianapolis and Dubuque, Iowa.
New York landlords and owners of industrial warehouse should extract sobering lessons from the Oakland calamity. Often in advance of future real estate redevelopment, such assets are leased out on a temporary basis to offset costs. Should any tenant use a space in an illegal manner or disable building or fire-safety equipment required by law, owners face stiff criminal and civil liability.
Disasters often serve as the impetus for new and strengthened regulations and enforcement. Consider the tragic New York City fires in 1975 at the Blue Angel nightclub and in 1990 at the Happy Land Social Club, which killed seven and 87 people, respectively. These devastating tolls are among the reasons for strengthened city regulations, including occupancy limits, exit signs, smoke detectors and sprinkler systems.
As Oakland officials continue their investigation, it is unclear what mandated fire protections were in place. The city of Oakland had no inspection records for 30 years of the 10,000-square foot warehouse, which apparently had been illegally converted into a residential space inhabited by artists.
The utter necessity of building inspections was brought home tragically on Dec. 18, 1998, when three FDNY firefighters were killed at a high-rise building in Brooklyn’s Starrett City where the fire sprinkler valves had illegally been shut off. Investigations and prosecutions resulted in criminal and civil penalties.
Just three days later, four more people died in a fire in an Upper West Side apartment where the family of actor Macaulay Culkin lived.
Those two tragedies led to Local Law 10, which established stricter inspection and maintenance standards and mandated fire sprinklers in multifamily dwellings with three or more units and for structures undergoing major renovations.
The Oakland fire provides an unfortunate, heart-wrenching lesson for our city’s property owners to always be vigilant and proactive about protecting tenants, regardless of a property’s current usage or value. After all, the road to implementing life-saving safety enhancements came at a grave price.