Oakland officials said Wednesday that blight and illegal construction complaints widely reported to be connected to the warehouse where 36 people died in a fire Friday were actually focused on a vacant lot adjacent to the building.
That disclosure came from the city's interim planning chief during a press conference to discuss the status of the investigation into the blaze and how inspectors had handled complaints about the property.
Online records that have been widely cited since the fire show that an inspector visited the site on 31st Avenue near International Boulevard after the city's Planning and Building Department had received a pair of complaints on Nov. 13 and 14.
Both of the complaints were filed online and cited a single address, 1305 31st Ave, the vacant lot adjacent to the warehouse now known as the Ghost Ship. The warehouse building itself is at a second address, 1315 31st Ave.
The first complaint, on Nov. 13, focused on an accumulation of trash in the lot and sidewalk adjacent to 1305 31st Ave.:
There are a ton of garbage piling up on the property on 1305 31st Avenue. Also, a lot of items are left on the sidewalk near the property. Some of trash was hazardous. This property is a storage but the owner turned it to become trash recycle site. The yard became a trash collection site and the main building was remodel for residential. The change causes our neighborhood looks very bad and creates health issue.
The second complaint, filed Nov. 14, simply reported an "illegal interior building structure."
On Nov. 17, a Planning and Building inspector who hasn't been publicly identified visited the site.
He verified the blight complaint, taking pictures of trash, furniture, vehicles and other items on the vacant lot and on the sidewalk in front of the warehouse. Those pictures became part of a notice of violation sent to Chor Ng, who owns both the lot and the warehouse. A reinspection of the lot was set for Jan. 16, 2017.
It's been widely reported that the inspector did not gain access to the Ghost Ship building at 1315 31st Ave. to verify the illegal structure complaint.
But city records released late Tuesday show the inspector believed the reported illegal structure was somewhere on the vacant lot and made no attempt to visit the warehouse next door.
In the only detailed note on the inspection, recorded the morning after his Nov. 17 visit to 31st Avenue, the inspector wrote: "Complainant needs to provide access, cannot see if there is an illegal building from the sidewalk (property has a chain link fence in the front)."
The mention of the complainant and the attempt to view the reported illegal structure from a sidewalk location suggest the inspector was attempting to locate something he believed was on the cluttered vacant lot, not in the warehouse building.
Darin Ranelletti, the interim chief of the Planning and Building Department, confirmed during the Wednesday press conference that both complaints filed last month were against 1305 31st Ave. and that the inspector was never tasked with checking on the warehouse building.
"When the inspector went out there, he confirmed the presence of blight," Ranelletti said, adding the inspector "was unable to get visual access into the lot to confirm if anyone was living there or if there was any illegal construction on the lot."
The records released Tuesday show no indication that the inspector attempted to contact the complainant further or scheduled a new visit to verify the existence of an illegal structure. Ranelletti said that the scheduled January 2017 visit would afford inspectors a chance to look for the reported structure.
Ranelletti said repeatedly that the inspector would have taken action on the warehouse only if he had seen a "physical, obvious violation" of city building codes.
"If you look at the warehouse building from the outside, absent the blight on the street, we have many similar-looking buildings in this city," Ranelletti said in describing the exterior of the Ghost Ship building. "There isn't the kind of physical, obvious sign that inspectors are required to note before they take a proactive step to investigate a building."
The planning chief also said a review of records showed that no inspector from the department had been inside the warehouse for 30 years or more. He said that's because there had been no building permits filed or complaints about interior work attributed to the warehouse's street address.
Separately, NBC Bay Area reported late Wednesday that the Oakland Fire Department's Fire Prevention Bureau, which is responsible for making safety inspections of the city's commercial buildings, had not been in the warehouse for at least a decade.