The 'temporary' scaffolding has been in place here at 2867 San Bruno for some four years now. This block-long building, with some 19 illegal units within, received almost no inspections — other than final sign-off from, you guessed it, Bernie Curran. Photo by Joe Eskenazi

“I’m not a finger-pointer,” drawls Supervisor Aaron Peskin. “But the City Attorney’s office fucked this one to a fare-thee-well.” 

Reasonable minds can differ about who did what to whom (to a fare-thee-well). But what’s not in dispute is that the situation here at 2867 San Bruno Ave. is indeed worthy of Peskin’s description. 

We’ve written a fair bit about this embarrassing potential deathtrap and Gordian knot of a housing snarl. In a nutshell, the owners illegally shoe-horned 19 unwarranted housing units into this four-story mixed-use new construction, deviating from submitted plans and in clear violation of myriad building codes — most obviously those requiring a second means of exit in the case of a fire. 

That’s bad, but this gets so much worse. That’s because this block-long series of five amalgamated buildings was erected with shockingly few inspections from the Building Department. There were only two recorded DBI inspections on one building, none on four of them, and then the final sign-off, from since-admitted federal criminal Bernie Curran. Other roughly comparable large projects were subjected to six times that many inspections, or more. 

So this is a building that houses far, far more people than it was safely designed to accommodate. And it was built with virtually no city inspections, including final sign-off from Curran — an admitted crook who, among many misdeeds, took bribes to approve shoddy work or greenlight “fixes” that were never fixed. Finally, like Curran, former DBI plan-checker Rudy Pada, who handled this development, also took a sizable “loan” from a developer tied to the project. 

The mess at 2867 San Bruno is back in the news, with hearings held this month regarding the plight of those living here, and more meetings scheduled for next month. For their part, tenants, wisely, are in the process of bringing in an attorney to fight to either keep them on-site or get them a good payment on the way out the door. He ought to have a field day: There are 29 units here in a structure warranted for 10, with either wholly absent or Mickey Mouse attempts at life-safety elements. It’s almost impossible to figure that the city won’t require all or most of the illegal units to be eliminated, meaning dozens of Spanish- and Cantonese-speaking working families — paying market-rate rent of more than $3,000 a month to live in inexplicably shoddy and dangerous new construction — will be put out of their homes. 

It’s understandable why the city is now focusing on the troubles of these put-upon renters, who are among the only people associated with this project who are blameless. The city, however, has had less of an impetus to focus on the most fundamental of questions: How could this happen? How can this be prevented in the future? And, as Laurence Olivier’s Dr. Szell repeatedly asked Dustin Hoffman’s Babe Levy in “Marathon Man:” Is it safe? Is it safe? Is it safe? 

The concise answer is no. 

The site in question, 2021.

The building code violations at 2867 San Bruno that this city has chosen to abide can all but be viewed from space. 

In lieu of proper fire exit measures for a building this size, the owners belatedly installed a wildly non-code-compliant, hulking set of scaffolding eerily resembling the backdrop of a Donkey Kong game.  

It’s bewildering that the city allowed this patently inappropriate remedy in the first place. And by the time we first wrote about this building in 2021, this “temporary” scaffolding had already been in place for some two years. Your humble narrator dropped by last week, and it appears nothing has changed. Contrary to code, the scaffolding is flush against the wall, meaning any lower-story fire emanating from a window will block the path of exit for those living above. Intuitively, you’re also not supposed to have people barreling out of windows directly into the path of people running along the fire escape. And the coup de grâce here — quite literally, if a serious fire ever breaks out — is an imposing exit door at the base of the scaffolding which, bewilderingly, swings inward. If a crush of people gather at this door, it cannot be pushed open. 

This would seem to be a quick and intuitive thing to change, but it hasn’t been done. Nor have more substantive measures beyond addressing the deficient fire escape. In a September, 2021, hearing, Building Department director Patrick O’Riordan said he “may” require opening walls on-site and “may” require forensic testing of the building’s foundation. 

But that hasn’t happened yet, either. Rather, the department is, per a spokesman, “waiting on the property owner to identify their path forward, present their plan, and apply for a building permit before requiring them to dismantle the tenants’ living space.” Only then will the Department of Building Inspection come in, open the walls, and do inspections. 

On the one hand, the tenants have been plenty disturbed already. On the other, it’s also disturbing to be incinerated in a fire or crushed in an earthquake because the owner tossed up a clearly unacceptable fire escape, with the city’s approval, or the builders used Wheatena instead of concrete, and chewing gum instead of hold-downs, and the city never bothered to inspect. 

At some point, yes, you’ll have to open the walls. But checking the foundations would not necessarily require the tenants to dismantle their living spaces, especially if ground-penetrating radar is involved. There are also preliminary means of checking on conduits, wiring and the like without ripping the walls open.

And, finally, this plan puts the ball in the court of the dodgy, demonstrably bad-faith owners, who already blew off coming up with a design to bring the building into compliance. The building remains virtually uninspected, with the good name of Bernie Curran on the final. And the myriad “special inspections” — city-mandated third-party work funded by the developer, and supposedly done in addition to Building Department inspections — all somehow overlooked the rampant illegal construction that was going on here. 

“There should be no confidence that any inspections, special or otherwise, were done properly,” says a longtime DBI inspector. “Somebody has to go back and re-put all the pieces in place and re-do all the inspections. It just has to be done. I don’t see how you can get away without it.”

YouTube video

In the event of a fire or earthquake, the overt corruption that enabled this site to be built with the city’s blessing could trigger a massive legal action against San Francisco. And, you know, get people killed.

Thank God, that hasn’t happened (yet). As such, the city’s powers-that-be appear to think it’s in their best interests for everything to go away quietly and for the aggrieved renters to set their legal sights on the building owner. 

And that appears to be happening. The city that patently failed to prevent dangerous, illegal construction seems to have caught a break: At present, the most direct legal route toward compensating the tenants is for them to target not the government, but the bad-faith developers.   

With that in mind, it’s very hard to say the city has any real impetus to properly suss out who is to blame here. Certainly, Curran is due his fair share of opprobrium and the City Attorney in 2021 approved a settlement with the owners involving a $1.2 million penalty and accruing “fees, fines, and costs, including time and materials” as city departments continue to clean up this mess.

But surely it doesn’t end there. Beyond the city departments that failed to curtail, much less inspect, rampant illegal construction on-site, how many others are guilty of passive or active corruption or incompetence? How culpable are the architects and engineers who prepared the illegal plans used to shoe-horn in those 19 unwarranted units? What about the contractors who built those plans? At the very least, they should’ve known they were building fire-trap units that had no second means of exit. And what about the structural engineer of record, who attested the construction was consistent with the approved plans, when it clearly wasn’t? And, finally, what about the supervising engineers for the mandatory independent inspection services that did the same? 

So, dumping everything on the dodgy owners and Curran is a bit too neat; it’d be like pinning Watergate on the five burglars and calling it a day. 

The penalty paid to the city for in the negotiated settlement, $1.2 million, is actually less than the additional rent generated from the dangerous, illegal units. This is a major reason why Peskin and Supervisor Hillary Ronen remain so critical.

“Bottom line,” Ronen says, “this was a ridiculous settlement.”

Adds Peskin, “were it not for that settlement, we could presumably get [the owners] to disgorge profits or attempt to impose relocation fees on them, etc. We never should’ve entered into that settlement.” 

Clearly, the City Attorney’s office sees things differently. 

“As with all settlements we negotiate, we strive to get the best outcome possible for the City,” says spokeswoman Jen Kwart. “In this case, we secured $1.2 million for the City and injunctive relief that allows us to pursue further legal action if defendants fall out of compliance with deadlines set by City agencies requiring the owners to bring the properties into compliance.” 

Well, okay then. But the real misstep here, beyond dollars and cents, may be failing to track down and penalize the cavalcade of bad actors who enabled this project and brought it to fruition; they remain out and about in the city, acting badly. 

The Building Department has, in recent years, frog-walked a number of slubberdegullions out of its headquarters and forced them into private life. It has also taken measures to curtail rampant rule-breaking. 

And that’s good. But, Building Department employees tell me, these measures are hardly foolproof. The computerized Permit Tracking System remains disturbingly malleable. And, fundamentally, while automated systems ought to be in place preventing a 900-day gap in inspections or a final inspection being scheduled and carried out on a project with too few prior inspections, that’s not the case. Inspectors have been called out to provide a final inspection on a previously uninspected site this month. 

“You can still final[ize] permits without any inspection history. There is no block,” says an inspector. “I can tell you that unequivocally.”

Following withering criticism from Ronen and others, the City Attorney’s office said it settled for the dollar amount that it did because, based on extant laws, this was the most city lawyers thought they could win at trial. 

“We’ll change the law to make sure that’s not the case in the future,” says Ronen. 

Her pending ordinance would quadruple administrative penalties in illegal construction cases from $250 to $1,000 a day — and, crucially, apply them per unit rather, rather than per project. Ronen’s legislation would also ensnare not just the property owner of record “but anyone involved in willful misconduct.” 

She is additionally looking to pass legislation putting anyone evicted from an illegal unit toward the front of the line for affordable housing, which should benefit her constituents who will, all but certainly, be forced out of 2867 San Bruno. 

Laws like these could serve as a deterrent to future malfeasance. Which is good because, as we’ve seen, when such malfeasance occurs, the most expedient thing to do is to minimize the city’s exposure and avoid reform — or even much in the way of introspection. 

That works for San Francisco. 

San Franciscans, however, may find themselves fucked to a fare-the-well. 

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Managing Editor/Columnist. 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 editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. Campers,

    Spare Parts:

    Property Owner is Nelson Tong who is owner of ‘Crimewatch Security’.

    Architect to thank is Jeremy Schaub

    For why the City Attorney allowed this to happen ?

    2-18-2009 SF Weekly Staff

    ‘What’s in David Chius political baggage?’

    Go Niners !


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    1. He owns Crimewatch? That’s great. But why can’t he keep an eye on himself? That’s right … If the crime is good for him, nobody should be watching/.

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  2. Joe,

    Reason the developers (whom you never name) have gotten such a good break from Chiu is that, in my always less than humble opinion, he’s a bad guy.

    I wrote this in a follow-up to a since disappeared Samson Wong column in Asian Weekly entitled, ‘Guns, God and the GOP’ which first exposed Chiu’s partnership with Tim Dick and the Republicans.

    You and your ‘team’ at SF Weekly picked up the ball and after kicking h. brown around the school yard a few times, too ALL of my research and claiming it as their own laid out the entire mess Wong had uncovered and I expanded upon.

    I was insulted that none of you would put their name on this smear piece but at least you closed and ended with my name which was a thrill for me neigh akin to getting my picture on the Cover of the Rolling Stone.

    Now, keep your eyes on the bouncing SF Weekly/Mission Local ball, campers.

    The point of the article by Joe if I read it right was asking why in the World Chiu would go along with the gangsters.

    Here’s why as related by old SF Weekly …

    In 1984, Sequoia purchased the voting machine business of AVM Corporation (the former Automatic Voting Machine Corporation) and was reorganized as Sequoia Voting Systems. AVM had its roots in a number of voting machine companies founded in the 1890s, but by the 1980s, most of its business was in other fields. Nonetheless, in the late 1950s, AVM had begun investing in the development of electronic voting machines.[6] By the time Sequoia bought the AVM voting business, the AVM Automatic Voting Computer (AVC) was ready for market. Under Sequoia ownership, the AVC was certified for use in several states in 1986 and 1987, and with sleek new packaging, it went to market as the Sequoia AVC Advantage DRE voting machine in 1990.[7] Business Week considered the AVC Advantage to be one of the high points in industrial design for the decade of the 1990s and credited it with turning the company around.[8]

    An Optech Eagle voting machine made after Sequoia Voting Systems obtained the rights from Business Records Corporation..
    In late 1997, Sequoia obtained the intellectual property rights to the Optech line of ballot scanners from Business Records Corporation. This transfer was a consequence of antitrust action taken by the United States Department of Justice when American Information Systems merged with the Election Services Division of Business Records Corporation to form Election Systems & Software. After this merger ES&S retained the right to sell and service Optech scanners to existing customers; as a result, the ES&S Optech IV-C and the Sequoia Optech 400-C, for example, are essentially the same device.[9][10]

    In early 2002 De La Rue, a British currency paper printing and security company took over ownership from Smurfit for $23 million.[11] After losing money for several years, on March 8, 2005, Sequoia was acquired by Smartmatic, a multi-national technology company founded by three Venezuelan software engineers, which had developed advanced election systems, including voting machines. Smartmatic machines and software were used in the 2004 Venezuelan recall referendum, which resulted in two studies, an exit poll[12] and cluster analysis,[13] indicating “massive fraud” that flipped the result in favor of dictator Hugo Chávez.

    In November 2007, following a verdict by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), Smartmatic was ordered to sell Sequoia, which it did to its Sequoia managers having U.S. citizenship.[14]


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    1. Joe,

      Sorry for mix-up with my Projects.

      The one I copied there has to do with why Dominion machines should go to an Open Source Algorithm.

      Piece I meant to copy and could not is available …

      SF Weekly Staff

      ‘What’s in David Chiu’s political baggage?’

      And, owner listed by Google of 2867 San Bruno is Nelson Tong

      Architect who created this maze is Jeremy Schaub

      Go Niners !


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  3. DBI is waiting on the owners to come up with a plan? The owners already have one…that is 19 illegal units that have provided income. Income that has already paid for the penalty levied from the settlement.
    What is more remarkable is that DBI continues to act the same way with problems…hide hide hide and hope it all goes away or at least is no longer in the news. As their infamous leader says “ It’s a new day at DBI” what a joke

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  4. Great work here. Why can’t the Chronicle do this type of investigative journalism?

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  5. I still can’t believe that the City justified that Riordan should be in charge. The Fox protecting the hen house.

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  6. It’s amazing to me that this sort of thing happens. Especially considering my home remodel in SF (extensive interior renovations, but no modifications to the building envelope) required 12 inspections, several of which created delays where we had to stop work while waiting for inspectors to show up, resulting in weeks of lost work which cost me substantial $$

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    1. There a few reasons why many folks do not bother getting permits:

      1) Cost. The DBI permits for my last kitchen remodel came to nearly $2,000

      2) Delays, as you note.

      3) Many DBI rules are petty and unnecessary.

      4) And the biggie – the value of your project is added to your Prop 13 basis for property tax. That $40,000 project adds $40 a month to your property tax forever.

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  7. Very, very distressing article Joe. It seems that even with in-your-face massive corruption, the City hierarchy refuses to act. Why? If anyone could follow the money trail on this and other, similar, projects, undoubtedly they would find many fingers in the pie, not just at DBI, but right up the City food chain. Why isn’t the City Attorney or the District Attorney involved in investigating these situations? Clearly, there’s activity of either a civil violation, a criminal violation, or both. When obvious corruption stares them right in the face, they do nothing.

    Joe, your reporting on this issue has been stellar. But, unfortunately, it’s a single voice in the wilderness. The rest of the local media seems to care less.

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  8. Joe, thank you for your continued reportage of this debacle. Supervisor Ronen’s legislation is all good but what about the tenants, the true victims of this crime that was facilitated by not only the contractors and engineers involved in this project but also the city of San Francisco whose employees failed to do their jobs in exchange for handsome bribes. To use your movie metaphor, it’s like one of Tony Soprano’s captains had “botched” a job and Tony acting incredulous promising to discipline the captain himself!
    Those 16 households who have rented apartments in this hazardous building for the past 6 years didn’t even know about having to move out until a few months ago despite the fact that the City knew about this debacle since at least 2021. San Francisco is just as culpable as the usual suspects and for this, the tenants should sue the City and collect damages to help them with heir move from this hazardous building. What’s the City gonna do with the $1.2MM and $2.3MM that they have settled for with the owners? Why not compensate the tenants instead of filling the coffers of MOHCD?

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    1. “what about the tenants?”

      Those tenants have had a home that they presumably like if they have chosen to stay there all this time.

      And it is my understanding that there are tens of thousands of “illegal” housing units in SF with such tenants in them. Many of them are in-law units in homes on the west side. The city mostly turns a blind eye to these units because it quite rightly does not want to see tens of thousands of homeless tenants.

      Sad to say but illegal units are a vital housing resource, without which rents would be higher, as would the number of the homeless.

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  9. This is great. It’d also be nice if Ronen could expand the legislation to include city departments that undertake unauthorized and unreviewed work. It’s not clear to me how often this happens, but it certainly does.

    The kiosk that housed the former Bi-Rite Café in Civic Center Plaza reopened about a year ago as Assembly Café and Beer Garden. In order to get a liquor license, the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control required a fence to demarcate the café’s perimeter.

    Changes to the Plaza require a Certificate of Appropriateness issued by the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission. Such a certificate was not issued for this fence. I have contacted multiple planners about this and have been assured that they would contact Rec and Park and conduct their own investigation. That was a year ago. The fence is still there and no one has followed up with me.

    After Rec and Park renovated the two playgrounds on the Plaza, they (including Phil Ginsburg) made it very clear to me and the Rec and Park Commission that the silly fences they installed around the playgrounds were not intended to work as fences (to keep small children from escaping) but only to “suggest” a fence because, obviously, such as suggestion is age-appropriate for a toddler. Ginsburg was adamant that the state law that governs the safety standards for playground fences (California Health and Safety Code – HSC § 115725) did not apply. He did not specify if he meant only to those fences or to anything Rec and Park decided to do. Maybe he meant the law didn’t apply to him and decisions he makes – in the spirit of Nixon’s “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” Certainly, Commission President Mark Buell, the one who had specifically asked Ginsburg about why the Health and Safety Code was not followed, was satisfied with Ginsburg’s response. (I would bet that Buell feels safer knowing he is protected by actual guardrails on the road over Mt. Tam he takes to get from his Pacific Heights home to his house in Bolinas. Maybe I’m wrong, though, and he’d be content with the mere suggestion of guardrails to keep him from driving off a cliff. Actually, a suggestion really should be more than enough for him. After all, his life is almost over and suggestions are adequate for the toddler whose life is just beginning.)

    Six months or so into the COVID public health emergency, Rec and Park doubled down on the absolute primacy of the historic setting and the need to maintain the appropriate aesthetic. I had asked about installing a (temporary) fence on the northern half of the Plaza to create a safe outdoor recreation area for the 3,500 children who live in the Tenderloin. The senior Rec and Park staff on that 25+ person Zoom call said a fence would be impossible to install because of the Plaza is just too damn pretty, needs to stay that way, and anyway is governed by decisions made by the Historic Preservation Commission. At the time she said that, City Hall had been “protected” by police-state barricades for four months or in order, I guess, to save democracy.

    And speaking of democracy, in the fall of 2020 there was a massive outdoor voting facility on Grove Street between the Plaza and Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. The fences and barricades used to create that space were indeed ugly. But whoever was involved in that project certainly understood that public health emergencies are just that, and ugly fences are an insignificant price to pay to assure people can vote.

    Rec and Park’s invocation of the historic nature of the Plaza to justify their petty refusal to put up a temporary fence was bullshit. They literally cared more about design, aesthetic and procedure than they did for all those kids who urgently needed the chance to get outside to play and feel the grass under their feet.

    And Supervisor Ronen, if you or anyone in your office would like more information, just let me know.

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