2867 San Bruno scaffolding Bernie Curran Department of Building Inspection
The 'temporary' scaffolding behind 2867 San Bruno, which violates myriad codes, has been in place more than two years. Photo by Joe Eskenazi

There were incendiary words exchanged today in a Board of Supervisors hearing regarding the debacle at 2867 San Bruno Ave

Thankfully, it was only words that were incendiary, because this is not a structure where one should play with fire: Twenty extra units were illegally shoehorned into this large, mixed-use building; there are 30 apartments here in a building only permitted for 10. A lack of fire protections led to the erection, nearly three years ago, of so-called “temporary” scaffolding serving as a fire escape, a situation described today by Supervisor Aaron Peskin as “a janky duct-tape and bubble-gum solution to a life-safety issue.” 

Perhaps even more disturbingly, there is a dearth of recorded inspections on this site by the Department of Building Inspection, meaning it is unclear how much figurative or literal duct tape and bubble-gum was used in a structure housing three times as many residents as it was designed to hold. And, finally, the certificate of final completion was issued by disgraced former senior inspector Bernie Curran, who is presently facing federal charges related to alleged fraud and bribery. 

A code expert in June told Mission Local that, “It’s quite possible that everything about this building was done wrong.”

There’s a lot going on here, but today’s hearing in the Board of Supervisors Land Use Committee didn’t answer the questions everyone would most want to know: How was Curran allowed to traipse about the city, for years, signing off on projects of this sort? In short: How could this happen? 

“A specialist” 

Curran’s involvement should’ve raised eyebrows even if he wasn’t facing federal charges. It isn’t typically a senior inspector’s job to inspect and sign off on projects; that’s the work of a district inspector. 

Additionally, there are many examples, going back many years of Curran traveling out of his districts to greenlight projects. According to federal filings against him, Curran had already built up such a reputation for doing this by 2014, that the building department was forced to create new procedures in an attempt to address Curran’s behavior.

Apparently, it  didn’t work. And, apparently he was far from the only one doing this. It did not come up in today’s hearing, but DBI sources say that there was even an in-house term for inspectors bucking the chain of command and/or traveling out of their districts to sign off on work: “a specialist.” 

Other “specialists” were disciplined. Curran, for years, was not. 

Today, interim Department of Building Inspection director Patrick O’Riordan said that Curran told him that he’d actually performed numerous inspections at 2867 San Bruno, but had failed to record them within the department’s permit tracking system, and had instead written them, in pen and ink, on the job card. O’Riordan said today that Curran did not produce that job card, despite being asked to do so many times. 

“We have to work on the assumption those inspections were not performed,” O’Riordan told the supervisors. This, the interim director later said, “may” require opening walls on-site and “may” lead to forensic testing of the foundation. 

O’Riordan said that Curran had earlier told him that he’d been sent to the site by since-ousted DBI boss Tom Hui. O’Riordan says he took that information to the City Attorney, but declined to speak further on the matter, which he said was the advice from the City Attorney’s office. The timeline of when this purportedly occurred is not clear.  

The supervisors were perplexed that there was no automated system that could alert O’Riordan — at the time the city’s chief building inspector and Curran’s direct supervisor — of the lack of recorded progress at 2867 San Bruno. O’Riordan said that, yes, there is no automated feature in the DBI system that could have alerted him of an unconscionable 907-day gap between the final two recorded inspections on site, or tipped him off to the jarring lack of inspections recorded here. 

Supervisor Myrna Melgar noted that, on as rudimentary a program as an online enrollment form for her child’s enrichment courses, it did not permit her to skip steps and enroll her child without completing all the steps. And yet, she noted, the Department of Building Inspection system used to oversee construction in San Francisco, allows steps to be skipped and a building to be determined “complete” regardless.  

“No fear”

The problem, Peskin said, is that scofflaws at the building department like Curran and Hui have “no fear. You wanna know what happens when they get caught with their hand in the cookie jar? … The worst thing that happens is you lose your job. I’m offended: They often leave with their retirement. If you made enough money being a crook, it might be a risk worth taking.” 

Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who called today’s hearing, took this opportunity to light into the City Attorney’s office. In July, the City Attorney reached a settlement, dinging this building’s developers $1.2 million. Ronen, however, said this was a pittance: Going by the $3,000 a month rent a hotel maintenance worker told the Chronicle in July that he paid, and doing back-of-the envelope math regarding the 20 illegal units built at the address, Ronen computed that since this building was greenlit, the landlords have bagged $3.24 million in rent on those 20 units. 

In short: Crime pays. 

“We’ve settled for crumbs in this case and put 30 families in danger,” she said. “Thank God there hasn’t been a fire in that building. We’d have had dead bodies on our hands.”

Deputy City Attorney Peter Keith said the $1.2 million settlement compared favorably with what the city could’ve won in court. Ronen countered that it’s unconscionable that the city hasn’t taken administrative remedies against the bad actors who did the unlawful work on-site. When Keith said it’s unclear who actually did the work, Ronen said she was flabbergasted that this information couldn’t have been leveraged out of the owners during settlement talks. 

“You can ask for anything in a settlement agreement: In a settlement agreement, you can say ‘I’m not settling this case until I have the job card in front of me; you tell me who did the illegal work; and I know the tenants are protected,’” Ronen said.  

“In my opinion, this settlement agreement is not protecting the tenants or the city or setting any precedent where we’re dissuading this type of behavior … or getting the bad guys to the state licensing board.” 

Keith said the penalties his office can impose are limited. Peskin said the Board of Supervisors could work to change that: “There are ways to enhance the penalties I can present to you,” Keith told Peskin.  Peskin added, for good measure, that maybe it was time to put the entire Department of Building Inspection under receivership, and under the aegis of the City Administrator.

Ronen and Peskin will call for a closed session tomorrow with the City Attorney to discuss legally sensitive matters regarding this and other Department of Building Inspection projects. 

The matters to be discussed at that confidential meeting remain unknown. As does what will come in the future for 2867 San Bruno Ave. And what happened in the past. 

Joe Eskenazi

Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. “Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior...

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9 Comments

  1. Guess everything old is new again. DBI, before it became a commission, was a division of DPW which, in turn, reported to the CAO, the predecessor to the City Administrator. Things were better, marginally, at that time.

    However, today, with corruption rampant throughout City government, I doubt the same marginal improvement would occur putting DBI under the City Administrator. Or have we already forgotten that the previous City Administrator, Naomi Kelly, has been connected with (obviously) Harlan Kelly and, gasp, Walter Wong?

    The City doesn’t need shifting deck chairs on the Titanic. They need a thorough and complete enema.

  2. Joe, thanks for yet another great article. As I said in my public comments yesterday at this hearing, these acts couldn’t have happened if the culture of corruption was not endemic in other parts of the city government. The fact is that the City Attorney’s office routinely dismisses whistle blowers and the cases they bring to light. Beating up on DBI for their misdeeds is par for the course but let’s not forget about other arms of the City Government such as the City Attorney’s office that has been AWOL on such shenanigans and the Planning Department that legalizes such illegal construction after the fact.

    While many of us were delighted to see the supervisors pouncing on DBI and City Attorney, not one of them asked for any timeline to be provided by DBI to implement a permit tracking system such as Accela. And while Supervisor Ronen touched briefly on the situation of the tenants who live in this unsafe and unpermitted property, no one asked about their displacement should they have to move out for the construction activities needed to make this building safe. Once again, tenants are the casualty of business as usual in this city.

  3. This over-building or conversion of single-family homes into apartments is all over the City. They should be required to file an environmental impact report or EIR. This practice has destroyed neighborhoods that once were tranquil and relatively quiet.
    Excessive cars, noise, garbage etc, now are the baseline in many areas. City Hall has
    been silent or complicit in this.

  4. First line of defense for DBI is to stall anyone or anything that questions their behavior. This happens every time, as time will heal all wounds…It’s seems that the Supes are interested in fixing DBI but until they learn not to be consistently stonewalled by the RBA nothing will change.

  5. Isn’t this all a small sideshow relative to knowing how the city disappears $13 billion in taxes? For perspective, Paris, a similar size to SF but with about three times the population, has an annual budget of $9 billion.

    1. Yes it is mind boggling.
      Perhaps, theoretically – San Francisco is the wealthiest city per capita that has ever existed in the history of mankind – budget-wise.
      Our budget is extensively documented and itemized for all to view.
      However, somewhere deep in the drill-down details is where the money disappears.
      It seems the more we spend – the worse quality of life issues become.
      The incredible amount of money The City spends for such mediocre results does not seem disconcerting to the majority of our residents.
      We keep voting for the same power structure over and over again as dictated by the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee.

      On the flip side – what’s the alternative?
      There is no viable opposition party/organization that is liberal on social policy and mindful of fiscal responsibility.
      The Republicans drifted off to become the party of the wealthy along with their lunatic acolytes – oh – somewhere around the end of reconstruction.

  6. I would take a more nuanced look at this comparison. For instance Paris doesn’t run a water system like Hetch Hetchy- that delivers high quality water to 2.7 million people. Budget 1.5 Billion.
    And our 13 billion is not entirely taxes. A decent amount of revenue comes from user fees and leases at the Airport and the Port.

  7. Check out proposed plans for 312 Utah St, supposed to be 3 unit zoning but 5 floors is being made into 5 units. 2 units are supposed to be 2 floors each, but in order to get from kitchen to bedrooms you need to use the common staircase for all floors. How is that consider one unit? Plans are still at City Planning w DR review Nov 18, 2021

    1. Who needs a planning department when we have by-right laws being passed that allow the developers to do whatever they want regardless of physical constraints. Who needs to worry about water, sewer and power limitations when you can draw them on a map or punch numbers into a computer and promise them to new tenants? Unlike money that may be created by banks, water is limited by science.

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