Update, June 14: Mission Local has learned that longtime senior inspector Bernie Curran, presently on suspension for receiving a $180,000 “loan” from a developer and initially failing to report it, has resigned. More information at story’s end.
The “temporary” scaffolding behind 2867 San Bruno Ave. has been here for more than two years. It looks a bit as if Donkey Kong ought to be tossing barrels from its upper level, but the Tonka trucks and tiny bicycles at its base are a reminder that families do, indeed, live here. This is no game. This is serious.
A building code expert offering your humble narrator a tutorial on a recent brisk morning pointed out problem after problem after problem with this setup, separate and apart from the conspicuous use of zip-ties. As scaffolding goes, it’s adequate and even luxurious — but this contraption is actually meant to serve not as a means for workers to climb up but as an emergency fire escape for residents to scramble down.
And here it’s a potential catastrophe. Sometimes building codes come off as niggling or arbitrary, but they exist for a reason. So, it’s a problem that the guard rails are held together with wires and twice as wide as the code allows, wide enough for a toddler to squeeze through.
It’s a problem that windows swing open and residents would come clambering out along the walkways that would be carrying streams of people fleeing a fire. It’s a problem that scores of residents would be deposited into a driveway and then be forced to hustle up to half a football field’s length toward the sole gate to exit the premises. And it’s a problem that the gate, where a mass of people may gather and begin pushing to leave, opens inward, not outward.
The code expert rattles off all these and more problems and pauses to take a breath. “It’s quite possible,” he says, “that everything about this building was done wrong.”
It is, and we haven’t even talked about the inside yet. There are problems here of the structural, procedural and political variety.
Twenty illegal units were clandestinely built into this new mixed-use structure by converting commercial space and subdividing existing units — there are 30 units here when the plans only list 10. The safety measures here befit a building meant to house far fewer people. And, to boot, city affordable housing requirements were skirted.
That’s bad, but it gets worse.
This is a large, four-story mixed-use structure subdivided into five structures; it was erected on the site of a former gas station and completed not even five years ago in 2017. Things get complicated when you make subdivisions like this. From the outside, this looks like a single, continuous building — But going through the block and lot numbers for this site turns up 25 different addresses.
Your humble narrator went through every permit associated with every address. And the myriad safety inspections required by law on a new building are not recorded anywhere. The only recorded inspections by Department of Building Inspection inspectors are a “start work” inspection in March 2014, a rebar inspection in July 2014 and then, 907 days later, a “Final Inspection/Approved” in January 2017.
That’s not how it’s supposed to be. As a point of example, we checked the permits for the new seven-story building at 1801 Mission (the site of a tussle over a ground-floor cafe that got so much recent press). On just one permit, there were 19 site inspections performed here by a DBI district inspector — numerous rebar inspections, and checks on the shear walls, rough frames, sheet rock, insulation and more. These are all the legally mandated inspections of the elements holding up the building and ensuring it doesn’t burn down.
At 2867 San Bruno Ave., either nobody wrote them down — anywhere, for years on end — or they just didn’t happen.
That’s bad, but it gets worse.
The final inspection at 2867 San Bruno was approved by longtime DBI senior inspector Bernie Curran. It’s irregular for a senior inspector — and not a district inspector — to be performing this duty. But irregularities abound here: You would think that the dearth of inspections on this site would come up during a final inspection. It did not. The site, of course, was approved — leading to a concatenation of other unfortunate events.
On June 8, the San Francisco Chronicle beat us to the punch and broke the story that Curran has been put on leave. This came after the city attorney ferreted out that he’d accepted a $180,000 loan from developer Freydoon Ghassemzadeh of SIA Consulting, failed to note this on his economic interest files, and then done inspections on SIA projects.
It’s unclear if Curran intended to pay that loan back. Which would, of course, make this an alleged bribe.
Let the record show that SIA is also tied to the 2867 San Bruno project.
So here’s the skinny: There are 20 extra units and far more people in this structure than the plans disclosed or the building was designed to safely carry. That leads to life-safety issues of the sort necessitating an emergency means of egress and the hasty construction of the problematic Donkey Kong fire escape out back.
On top of that, it is unclear if many, many legally mandated safety inspections were ever performed here — and, therefore, unclear how well-built those vital load-bearing and safety elements really are. And, to cap it off, the final sign-off was administered by an inspector currently on leave for taking a “loan” from a developer whose company is tied to this project.
That is a terrifying combination.
The Planning Department, the City Attorney’s office and Supervisor Hillary Ronen — in whose district this project lies — have long been aware of the flippant inclusion of 20 illegal units in these buildings.
“We are trying to figure out a way to legalize those units and heavily penalize the owners and the builders to hold them accountable,” says Ronen. “We are trying to figure out a way to legalize the units and keep them safe because they’re occupied and we don’t want to displace the tenants.”
Ronen, however, did not know about the dearth of safety inspections (and, resultantly, questionable building practices) on this overcrowded site with improper fire exits. None of the voluminous city reports about shenanigans on-site mention this.
She did not know about the Curran tie-in, or the attachment on this project of the outfit owned by the man who gave Curran a “loan.”
And she is not pleased.
“From day one this should have prompted a complete investigation,” she says. She pledged to on Tuesday call for a Board of Supervisors hearing to address this situation. “It’s astonishing. I don’t know how they got away with this.”
And that is indeed a pertinent question when you’re dealing with the Department of Building Inspection. How was this situation allowed to linger for years on end — with no liens placed on the property, no clouding of its title, no Certificates of Final Completion revoked and an unapprovable “temporary” fire escape not only approved but left up indefinitely?
You may recall erstwhile Planning Commissioner Dennis Richards having nine permits revoked on his property only days after being hit with Notices of Violation. This, says a longtime Department of Building Inspection source, demonstrates “the unequal distribution of the hammer. Depending on who you are, you either get hammered or protected.”
It would appear that the owners of this structure are being protected. Ronen and her city colleagues, meanwhile, have worked to protect the tenants, “who are victims and have no fault here.”
That’s true, but their task is daunting. When you have a certain number of people in a building, the law requires a second means of exit. The temporary fire escape now in place is plainly unacceptable, and the proposed “permanent” solution — to install a “galvanized steel fire escape” — is baldly in violation of longstanding city code.
Metal fire escapes of this sort haven’t been permitted here in years; they are only allowed in case-by-case circumstances if a building meets all of about a dozen conditions. And 2867 San Bruno roundly fails here.
So, the city may have to do more. The city allowed this building to be built in this manner and allowed this situation to fester. So it’s the city that should put up these tenants in code-compliant housing.
And the city also must go back and inspect the work of its inspectors — which could lead to more of the above. A Department of Building Inspection spokesman told the Chronicle that the department’s new leadership is committed to “rooting out corruption and bad actors…”
The suspension of Curran was, in fact, spun as a positive move. As they say: Always look on the bright side of life.
So the spokesman, notably, did not mention that, for roughly a decade, Curran’s direct supervisor was Patrick O’Riordan, who was the department’s chief building inspector prior to becoming its new leader.
Tuesday figures to be an interesting day. “I am so angry and I am so outraged,” Ronen says. “I will get to the bottom of this.”
Godspeed. It’s bad: And the more you dig, the worse it gets.
Update, June 14 3:40 p.m.: Building Department spokesman Patrick Hannan confirmed that Curran has resigned, effective today:
Since Patrick O’Riordan was named Interim Director in March 2020, DBI has worked with the City Attorney’s Office and the Controller’s Office to identify and correct problematic practices and to investigate employees who may have engaged in misconduct or abused the public trust. It will take time, but we are committed to righting the ship and cleaning up any messes that have been left behind.
City Attorney spokesman John Coté added the following:
Throughout this corruption investigation, our focus has been on rooting out contractors and employees who abuse the public trust. At DBI, our investigation led to the resignation of then-Director Tom Hui as well as a $1.7 million settlement with former permit expediter Walter Wong that requires him to repay taxpayers and bars him from acting as a permit expediter for five years. Our investigation did not stop there. It also led to the resignation of other senior officials at DBI, including most recently Mr. Curran.
This story first published on June 11 at 3 p.m.