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  • 22 Oct 2014

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The danger zone

Two Old Town nightclubs could pose fire hazards for partygoers


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The Suey Wing building on Northwest Fourth Avenue is abandoned, boarded up and posted on the fire bureaus Unsafe Buildings list. But city officials still allow ground floor nightclubsPortland officials have permitted nightclubs in two Old Town buildings that its own fire inspector has determined are “inherently dangerous.”

The nightclubs, in the city’s new Entertainment District, are allowed on the first floor of buildings that are otherwise vacant. Two prominent fire officials from outside Portland, reviewing Fire Bureau inspection reports of the buildings, question why Portland would allow nightclubs to operate in buildings that do not meet universal fire code standards.

The two buildings, the officials say, are dangerous to club patrons, potentially the sites of deadly nightclub fires similar to others that have killed hundreds in other cities.

The Suey Wing building at 209 N.W. Fourth Avenue has for decades been home to the Magic Garden, a first-floor lounge that showcases nude dancers. The building also has leased space to a series of popular nightclubs, including the Crown Room, shuttered recently after a series of Oregon Liquor Control Commission violations.

READ THE REPORTS

Click here to read the city inspection reports on two Old Town buildings.

Portland Fire & Rescue inspections as far back as 2006 noted the building’s many dangers. One inspection in 2006 found deteriorating trusses that help hold up the roof. The Portland Bureau of Development Services informed the owners in a 2009 order that they had until the end of 2011 to take out permits and fix the trusses.

When the Tribune contacted BDS two weeks ago, Mike Liefeld, the bureau’s enforcement manager, said records show there had been no follow-up by city inspectors.

Last week, Liefeld said that as a result of the Tribune’s inquiry the case has been reopened and a violation notice has been sent to the building’s owners. He said owners have indicated that they have performed work on the truss, but they have not taken out permits or had an inspector approve the work.

The building’s owners are listed as the Suey Wing Benevolent Association. Tribune calls to the phone number in city records were not returned.

Letting it burn

The Sinnott House, 105 N.W. Third Ave., has been occupied by a series of first-floor nightclubs, the current version of which is The Barrel Room. An inspection report for the Sinnott, which, like the Suey Wing, is constructed of unreinforced masonry, provides a warning to firefighters: “The possibility of a partial or total collapse during emergency operations must be planned for.” Fire crews have been advised to expect “rapid fire spread” and to keep all fire apparatus away from the building.

“Whoever is allowing this to be occupied is a fool,” Cliff Munson said. Munson speaks with the authority of 23 years as a firefighter and fire inspector in Long Beach, Calif. He also served a four-year stint as deputy Oregon state fire marshal. Currently, he teaches future firefighters at Chemeketa Community College in Salem.

Munson said the inspection records for both buildings — obtained by the Tribune through a public records request — reveal a number of fire code violations that should keep them closed. Fire doors are missing, emergency lighting isn’t working, escape paths are blocked. The upper floors of both buildings were declared too dangerous to occupy.

Munson said the fire bureau inspector, Michael Alderman, did a thorough job highlighting the buildings’ dangers.

“I would not allow anything to continue in these buildings,” Munson said. “Sooner or later somebody’s going to get hurt in these buildings. If my kid was in one of those nightclubs and they had something go wrong, a fire, and he or she died in there, if I found out the city of Portland knew these were dangerous buildings, I’d have a wrongful death suit filed against the city so quickly you’d think I’d used mirrors.”

Portland Fire & Rescue officials insist the ground-floor nightclubs in buildings they have declared otherwise uninhabitable are safe, and that their own reports are misleading.

“I can see on the face of it, if you read those reports, they were a little more dramatically written than I might have written them,” said Dave Flood, the city’s senior fire inspector.

The Tribune requested an interview with Michael Alderman, the senior fire inspector who performed the inspections, and was told Alderman could only be interviewed with a deputy fire marshal in attendance.

At that interview, Alderman said he agrees with the bureau’s decision to allow the two nightclubs to stay open. He said part of his intent in writing the inspection reports was to get the two buildings into the bureau’s unsafe building program, which warns firefighters of dangerous conditions in structures in which they may be called to fight fires.

“I’m trying to sell the danger that I see to our firefighters,” Alderman said.

The Sinnott’s listed owner, Kecia Nathan, declined to be interviewed for this story. According to outside experts, the Sinnott’s inspection report makes clear to firefighters that because of crumbling walls, they will need to position themselves far away, which might mean letting the building burn once they are sure no people are left inside.

Munson notes the warning to firefighters to stand back because of the potential for crumbling walls. “If you are saying something is so dangerous firefighters can’t enter the building, why would you allow civilians in there?” he asks.

Cities like revenue

“Both of these buildings would need extensive, and probably very expensive, revisions to render them safe for public occupancy,” said Phil Mathiowetz, a retired fire chief and Minnesota deputy state fire marshal who teaches fire sciences at Hennepin Technical College. After reviewing the Portland Fire Bureau’s inspections, Mathiowetz wrote, “With the limited amount of information that I have, a fire in either of these two occupancies has the potential for catastrophic consequences to the public or responding firefighters.”

Mathiowetz said that before the nightclubs should be allowed to open, a number of changes would have to be undertaken to bring the buildings into compliance with internationally accepted fire codes. Automatic sprinkler systems would have to be installed throughout the buildings, with automatic fire detection systems and working exit doors with panic hardware.

The most egregious danger that Portland officials are overlooking, according to Munson, are the lack of sprinklers on the first floor of the Suey Wing building, precisely where the nightclubs pack in patrons on Friday and Saturday nights. International fire code, which Portland subscribes to, requires sprinklers in buildings where more than 100 people congregate and where food and drinks are served.

“That’s a horrible code violation,” Munson said. And, he adds, the situation at both buildings reminds him of the 2003 Station nightclub fire which killed 100 patrons in West Warwick, R.I. In fact, the international rules were adopted as a result of the Station nightclub tragedy.

Flood said the Suey Wing clubs are allowed to operate without sprinklers and other fire code improvements because in Portland older buildings — including a number of Entertainment District clubs — are not required to upgrade to fire code unless property owners change the building’s use or substantially remodel the structure.

Munson, who also served as deputy fire marshal in Hillsboro, said allowing an unsafe building to continue to be occupied without upgrades doesn’t make sense.

“You can’t continue an illegal act just because you’ve always done it,” he said.

According to the Fire Bureau’s Flood, decisions on whether to recommend a certificate of occupancy for a building are made by a committee of at least three administrators reviewing the inspector’s report.

“We never leave it to just a single human being,” Flood said. “A single human can make a mistake.”

Flood said that the dangerous conditions on the vacated upper floors of the two buildings are not a major problem because “fire goes up, it rarely goes down.”

Flood confirms that international and Portland fire codes require sprinkler systems in nightclubs, but said fire code is often open to interpretation.

“There are people who are fairly liberal in their interpretation of code and people who are highly conservative,” he said. “We try to come down in the middle. If we applied fire code overzealously we could probably shut the entire city down.”

Munson said anything short of sprinklers in a nightclub, whether it is in an Entertainment District or not, smacks of politics.

“You know the reason they do it is it’s politically correct,” he said. “It’s not politically correct right now to tell people they can’t do something they want to do. Cities like revenue and that’s why they do this.”

Next story: Why there are so many abandoned buildings in Old Town/Chinatown, and a plan for getting them renovated or removed.