Business & Economy

LA opens criminal cases in crackdown on illegal warehouse residences

The face of the Ghost Ship warehouse building in Oakland, California, bears the scars of a Dec. 3, 2016 blaze when 36 people died during an electronic dance party.
The face of the Ghost Ship warehouse building in Oakland, California, bears the scars of a Dec. 3, 2016 blaze when 36 people died during an electronic dance party.
Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

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Los Angeles authorities have filed criminal complaints against the owners of three properties, two in downtown L.A. and one by Chinatown, as part an ongoing effort to prevent a tragedy like the deadly Ghost Ship fire last December.

The cases resulted from a city investigation into 177 commercial properties suspected of housing people in violation of safety and building ordinances. From that group, inspectors identified nearly 40 problem properties, many downtown warehouses, with more than 400 alleged violations among them, according to city officials.  

City Attorney Mike Feurer said in an interview with KPCC this week that inspectors have been actively searching for illegal residential conversions in commercial spaces. He called this a "paradigm shift" from when public complaints would drive inspections.  

"It cannot be the case that on our watch some event like the Ghost Ship fire happens here in Los Angeles," Feurer said. "These are preventable problems."

Most of the properties identified by the city have been issued orders to comply with health and safety codes. 

"Ideally, people will make the repairs and other changes necessary to make sure they have safe buildings," Feurer said. "We'll see what happens next."

The criminal complaints target three of the properties with the most problems: they are located at 421 E. 6th St., 801 E. 7th St., both downtown, and 1641 Naud St., east of Chinatown. 

The most recent criminal complaint was filed in May against the owners of 421 E. 6th St. They were charged on 16 misdemeanor counts related to failure to secure necessary permits, and to meet safety regulations for items such as elevators and fire doors. 

The building owners named in the complaint are David Baradarian, Pedram Yadidsion, Moses Babazadeh and Shahram Shamsian, all principals in Downtown Prime LLC.

A lawyer for the owners said he had not yet had an opportunity to review the charges. 

"However, I have reached out to the city and we are in the process of bringing the building into compliance," said Richard Kaplan of Kaplan Marino, a Beverly Hills law firm.

Owners of the other two properties at the center of criminal complaints could not be reached for comment. Shamsian is also listed as one of the owners of the 801 E. 7th St. building, but Kaplan said he was not familiar with that case.

The 6th Street property represents the fourth criminal case the city has pursued against owners of a commercial property for illegally housing tenants.  

In the days after the Ghost Ship fire, authorities moved quickly in December against the owner of a warehouse at 931 E. Pico Blvd., opening both civil and misdemeanor criminal cases, according to the city attorney's office. Authorities allege there was illegal and unsafe conversion of residences in the commercial building.  

Also in December, the fire department also shut down the DIY club Purple 33 near L.A.'s border with Culver City. A department spokesman at the time said the club had been illegally converted into living quarters as well as a performance space and lacked fire extinguishers or proper electrical wiring.

Feurer said in recent months, fire inspectors have been hitting the pavement to find commercial properties they suspected of housing people illegally, looking to mailboxes for clues. 

L.A.'s enforcement actions come as the fallout from the Bay Area blaze continues. Two men who ran the Ghost Ship artist collective were arrested last week and charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, one count for each of the fire victims.

Authorities said the two men used the Ghost Ship warehouse for housing and parties although the building lacked fire safety systems and was filled with material that quickly caught fire.

Presently, Oakland officials face scrutiny for failing to implement safety reforms they had promised, including speedier compliance orders after fire inspections.