Unapproved Uses of Industrial Buildings Pose Risks

The deadly warehouse fire in Oakland has renewed focus on the risks posed when industrial and commercial buildings are re-purposed for special events or residential use for which they are not designed and lack safety precautions, fire safety and law enforcement officials say.

"Whether or not it's here in Long Beach or other cities throughout the nation, the point is, it puts people at risk," said Long Beach firefighter Jake Heflin.

He sees the shortage of affordable housing as a factor in the unpermitted colonization of some spaces for residential use, as authorities believe happened at the Oakland warehouse that caught fire Friday night and claimed at least 36 lives.

The risk can be compounded when underground parties bring in crowds.

The Long Beach Fire Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department are among the agencies that monitor social media for notices of parties in unapproved spaces.

In recent years, the Sheriff's Electronic Communications Triage unit has detected some one thousand illegal parties, said Commander Mike Parker, who spoke of what responding deputies have found.

"We've all gone to these warehouse parties and things where clearly this building is not designed to have a party at with hundreds of people," said Parker. "And so really the potential for disaster is ongoing."

Issuing code violations for a building out of compliance does not necessarily guarantee the problems will be fixed, officials say.

In some cases, solutions await a buyer stepping forward with a vision for rehabbing the space.

Heflin cites the long closed Packard auto dealership on Anaheim Street in Long Beach as a successful turnaround since it was purchased last year by the Millworks company for "adaptive reuse."  

There was evidence people were living on the property, said Millworks managing partner Michelle Molina. There was also a large amount of debris that the seller agreed to remove, she added. 

Now, after inspections and upgrades, the property is available for rent for events with city approval. Punk rock is on Saturday's schedule, with a crowd of 650 permitted.

"It's possible to do this without laying out a lot of money. It's just about being clever and about getting the resources that your city can offer," Molina said.

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