Artists Nick Randell and Andrew Johnstone and leasing agent Cheryl Edison (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)
Cheryl Edison said she knew what was coming after the Ghost Ship Fire.
“Heads up,” Edison texted her boss the next day. “There’s been a big warehouse fire, and because our property is called a warehouse, there’s likely to be a backlash.”
Edison was a consultant, finding artists and makers to occupy a co-working space called Factory 510, part of the Gate 510 complex, which houses a number of retail, tech, maker, and artist spaces off Davis Street in San Leandro.
And Edison said her boss, Steve Wong, a property manager with the real estate merchant banker ScanlanKemperBard (SKB), based in Portland, texted her back.
“We have nothing to worry about. Our property is nothing like that (the Ghost Ship) property. We are concrete and steel beams, sprinklers throughout.”
But Edison was right. On the Monday morning after the fire, “came fire officials,” Edison said, “and representatives from the city of San Leandro, making a huge scene. I was called by tenants and members, I contacted SKB. And I said Steve, we have an issue here.”
Gate 510 encompasses nearly a million square-feet of space. It was once a manufacturing plant for Dodges and Plymouths, and then Caterpillar tractors. Now there's a Home Depot, a Ross Dress for Less and other retailers downstairs. Upstairs, SKB has built studios and offices for entrepreneurs, tech companies, artists, and makers.
Edison showed me around the huge modern looking space a few weeks ago. A few artists were there with her, packing their gear, because SKB terminated all the leases for Factory 510 as of Jan. 9.
“What happened here, is like saying we’ve got a problem with forest fires, so let’s just cut all the trees down,” said Andrew Johnstone, an artist who designs and builds huge sculptures, including the iconic Burning Man figure used at last summer’s Burning Man Festival. “That’s not how you deal with this.”
The City Building Official
But Jerry Smith Jr., San Leandro’s chief building official, said the inspection on Dec. 5 was routine and not a crackdown.
“There’s this perception,” Smith said in a phone interview, “because of the Ghost Ship fire, that we suddenly had this interest in the Gate. I was at the gate my first week here.
“It’s so complex," Smith said. "It’s so far ahead of the code, that we regularly go through to figure out what they’re doing, how do we protect them, what’s the best way to do this.”
Smith is like many city officials after the Ghost Ship fire, eager to work with artists, entrepreneurs, and makers -- all of whom bring innovation and taxes to their cities. “This city is pro-artist and pro-maker,” Smith said. But he added that he always worries that he could be overlooking a major safety hazard.
“When we do our job, nothing happens," Smith said. "I have prevented more death and injury than any first responder in the history of mankind.”
Smith said what he found at Factory 510 was a neon art installation with bare wires tied to the building steel in an area designated as a refuge, a safe room to which people could go in the event of a fire.
“People would have gotten electrocuted," Smith said. "And the neon was suspended over the top of the exit path. Can you imagine if we had an earthquake event. It would have shattered, you would have gotten a glass shower.”
Edison said Smith and the fire inspector told her that “anything that could loosely be called art was no longer something that could be permitted.”
Artist Nick Randell, who installed the neon said, “I did some wonderful installations here which I assure you were perfectly safe. I’ve been setting up neon in places for over 30 years and I have yet to electrocute anyone or burn anything down.”
Johnstone said the inspectors warned him that he had flammable paintings hanging on a wall, and he was ordered to remove them. That established, what he called, an impossible safety standard for a working artist.
Meanwhile SKB’s Steve Wong said in a phone interview that the inspection was only a minor factor in ending the company's arrangement with Edison and the artists she was leasing to. "Part of Edison’s job was going away," Wong said, "because she’d done such a good job of leasing the space.
“If anything the timing of it relative to the Oakland fire may have accelerated it by a few months,” Wong said. “And some of those folks leaving were short term tenants under Cheryl’s purview.”
Wong said SKB was happy with the work Edison did bringing in artists and tech entrepreneurs. But the company “needed to take a couple of steps back because of the additional scrutiny on fire and safety.”
A Plea For a Home
Back at Factory 510, neon artist Nick Randell takes the long view on his eviction. “This is just a temporary setback,” said Randell. “Our work is done here. Artists come in when a place is down at the heels. And once it gets successful they get rid of us.”
And despite losing her consultancy with SKB, Edison said “There are no villains here.”
The real problem, she said, is that cities still don’t understand how to take the Bay Area’s many under-used warehouses and “upcycle those buildings to allow them to be used safely and adequately for new uses.”
Edison paused a minute. “I’m not going to cry,” she said, tearing up for just a second.
“I’m reaching out to the mayor of Alameda, the mayor of Berkeley, the mayor of Oakland," Edison said. "Have you got a space for dozens and dozens of tech companies and artists, who play by the rules, who want to be safe, and need a place to make innovation thrive, and make an economy thrive? Just like we did here in San Leandro. We need a place to be.”
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.