Prior to Wednesday night’s lengthy hearing before the city’s Board of Appeals, Planning Commissioner Dennis Richards offered an unambiguous answer to whether he planned to sue the Department of Building Inspection: “Fuck yeah.” 

Afterward, he was only slightly more circumspect, noting that his First Amendment rights as a city commissioner had been violated, and he intended to take legal action “as soon as I can.” 

In between — and following a hearing that stretched some two-and-a-half hours, until nearly 11 p.m. — the Board of Appeals, somewhat improbably, posited a solution that both the building department and Richards and his partner and legal representatives said they were amenable to: The warring parties will be made to hammer out their differences on the ornate, 18-room Italiante-style building at 3426-32 22nd St., near Guerrero, that Richards and business partner Rachel Swann obtained for $2.7 million in 2018 and are now hoping to sell for $7.5 million. Once that is done, they will re-appear before the Board of Appeals on March 18. 

The Board of Appeals’ insertion of itself into the situation was heartening for Richards and Swann, who charged building department officials of, in essence, running a shakedown racket and plotting against them: “I am more optimistic now because of the oversight of” the Board of Appeals, said their attorney, Scott Emblidge. 

At issue was the building department’s abrupt revocation of nine permits on the site on Sept. 30. Building department officials claimed this was due to shoddy work (the term “flawed engineering” was read off a PowerPoint, repeatedly), intransigence by Richards and his engineer Pat Buscovich, and much building beyond the scope of the permits. Richards’ side, however, claimed an out-and-out conspiracy against the planning commissioner, centering on his vocal criticisms of the building department and his opposition during Planning Commission meetings to a scofflaw and — allegedly — politically juiced project at 3847-3849 18th Street. 

That’s the charge Emblidge made in his opening statement in a small, fourth-floor City Hall hearing room — and one that Richards, loudly, revisited some hours later. “It’s me! That’s why they’re doing this. They’re trying to get back at me and holding it over my head so I let that project [on 18th Street] go and stop pursuing it,” he told the commissioners. “This is out-of-control criminal activity. It will be investigated. I look to you to help my plight, my financial safety and to protect me from this Trumpism that has been a cancer on this city going on for decades and nothing has been done about it.”  

Dennis Richards accused the Department of Building Inspection of ‘Trumpism’ and labeled it a ‘cancer on this city.’ Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Bombshell allegations like these, which were also made in an explosive brief underpinning Richards’ case, did not occupy most or even much of the Board of Appeals’ time Wednesday night — with some commissioners complaining that, allegations of corruption in the building department or not, there were inarguable violations on the 22nd Street site. 

Instead, the commissioners waded into the weeds of building and building inspection arcana and urged some manner of reconciliation. 

“I am having trouble understanding why we’re here,” admitted commissioner Eduardo Santacana, midway through the hearing. “Most of the people in this room agree something needs to be fixed. Why hasn’t this been worked out? Why are we here? I don’t understand this case.” 

Emblidge had earlier alleged selective enforcement against his clients, presenting a litany of wayward projects in which, unlike the 22nd Street site, the serious step of permit revocation was never broached. 

When commissioner Rachel Tanner subsequently asked building department officials what violations on the 22nd Street site were so dire and constituted such a life-safety issue that they warranted the hasty revocation of nine permits, senior building inspector Joe Duffy didn’t offer specifics. Instead, he matter-of-factly stated that “all building code issues are safety issues.” 

This answer drew laughter from some audience members in the late-night crowd, and did not seem to dazzle the commissioners. 

Santacana later followed up by noting that, rather than give Richards and his partners the usual 30 days to fix on-site issues following the Sept. 30 issuances of “notices of violation,” the permits were revoked only hours later.

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“There are some significant allegations in this case and I would like to understand … how you jumped from suspension to revocation in just one day.” 

Santacana went on to note that this level of punishment is “rather rare.” Commission president Rick Swig chimed in, “and rather punitive.” 

Swig said he considered the violations on-site to be “minutia-like … some serious breaches, maybe, but not as abusive as some of the stuff you’ve seen in the newspaper. … I am truly trying to find a way through this without getting to the point of revocation. I show my cards.” 

As the hour neared 11 p.m., the commission president instructed Richards and his partners to “clean up the plans as best as you can, wrap it in ribbons, and bring it to the Planning Department and Department of Building Inspection. Come back here and hopefully everything is marvelous and we can say it’s over.” 

Richards gave a literal thumbs-up to that, but such harmonious behavior would appear to be wishful thinking. He does not appear willing to let go of his allegations of corruption within the department of building inspection, regardless of the outcome of this single project. 

“This hearing,” he said in the corridors of City Hall, “is not the end. It’s just the beginning.”