This post has been updated.
Barrio Logan’s burgeoning art scene is about to take a hit.
Three of the community’s cornerstone arts venues will have to halt public events while the owners get the buildings up to fire safety standards. It could be several months before the venues can host art openings and music performances again.
“As far as right now, there are no more assemblies or art shows of any kind,” said Matt Devine, the artist who holds the master lease at Glashaus. “There are a couple things fire officials requested that we do, so we’re just trying to be as code compliant and fire safe as we can.”
The crackdown comes in the wake of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland that killed 36. Cities across California and the country have been forced to address concerns about underground arts venues operating inside unsafe and unhealthy warehouses.
Artists and musicians have long thrived in the gritty spaces, trading cheap rent for safety. Especially in cities like San Diego with high costs of living, artists often have little choice but to sacrifice safety for affordable spaces to live, work and perform.
The arts venues can be chock full of code and fire violations like inadequate emergency exits, poor ventilation and lack of sprinklers. Artists sometimes live in these warehouses illegally, or hold illegal events that pack in more people than can safely exit in an emergency.
Cities have long looked the other way, since code enforcement is a reactive rather than a proactive process; if no one complains, nothing happens.
No one was found to be living illegally in the three arts venues in Barrio Logan and Logan Heights, but none of the buildings are equipped to host the large public events they have been.
San Diego Fire Marshal Doug Perry said the venues need more fire exits and must be outfitted with other safety devices and features before more than a few dozen people are allowed in the spaces at any one time.
Each venue will have to work with the city to change the type of uses allowed in its buildings. It’s a process that requires fees, a licensed architect and drawings, construction to add fire exits and other safety measures, city approval and subsequent inspections. It can take several months to complete.
“We are trying to work with them through that process,” Perry said. “We will address what needs to be addressed, but keep the venues safe for the time being. … Everyone who goes to see the art and experience the culture, they want to be safe. They want to be able to go and see the beautiful things but then return home to their families.”
Perry said the inspection of La Bodega came from an anonymous tip not long after the fire in Oakland. He said inspections at Bread & Salt and Glashaus have been ongoing.
“I knew from the minute that event happened in Oakland that these kind of things were going to be happening here,” said James Brown, the architect and developer who owns and operates Bread & Salt.
Brown and Perry are meeting this week to figure out what’s next. Brown thinks venues in Barrio Logan and Logan Heights are being unfairly targeted. He said big events that exceed building capacities are happening everywhere in the city – even when offices hold Christmas parties, they often violate city codes, he said.
“They can’t just shut down art openings in one community,” Brown said. “We need to come up with a strategy that allows safety, but also allows our communities to continue to have culture.”
Perry said the city and the San Diego Fire Department aren’t targeting Barrio Logan and Logan Heights, but that he has noticed more warehouses, old buildings and even homes in those neighborhoods operating as public venues when they’re not supposed to be.
Brown said at the meeting with Perry he plans to suggest the arts venues be able to keep holding public events while they try to comply with city codes.
It’s a possibility, Perry said, but the stopgap solution can be pricey – requiring a special permit for each event, at about $240 a pop. The venues would also be required to hire a Fire Department staffer, at around $115 an hour.
Perry said he won’t budge on the number of people allowed into each venue, even at properly permitted special events. He’s capped Glashaus’ capacity at 29, La Bodega’s at 49 and he said he’ll work with Brown to come up with a number since some of the spaces there are fairly large.
The Athenaeum Art Center, an art school and event space that rents space inside Bread & Salt, spent thousands of dollars and took seven months getting its part of the building up to fire safety standards before opening early this year, so it can continue to host public events for up to 55 people at a time.
La Bodega’s owners didn’t respond to inquiries, but according to Facebook the venue has three events scheduled for January.
Perry said the Oakland fire also made the Fire Department more aware of the information it can glean from social media. He said it’s always been hard to enforce restrictions on venues hosting illegal events, but the department will now check social media regularly to monitor whether venues are following approved uses.
“That fire got everybody’s attention,” he said.
A spokesperson for Councilman David Alvarez, whose district includes Barrio Logan and Logan Heights, said he has requested a meeting with the city’s fire chief.
Update: This post has been updated to include The Athenauem Art Center, which is allowed to continue hosting events at its space inside Bread & Salt.