Thursday, January 14, 2010

Street Eyesore Takes Up Residency in NOPA

Public street space claimed by private fire escape on Lyon at Golden Gate

"a blight on the neighborhood"

There are few simple stories in San Francisco, and the saga of the over-sized fire escape on Lyon Street near Golden Gate is one that isn't. But it does offer up the usual suspects of conflict: landlord/tenant relations, land use arguments, the city permit process, and 50 years or more of creative, non-code building practices.

The three-story metal structure has sidled along the turn-of-the 19th century apartment building since last summer. It provides an emergency exit for a few residents, but passers-by might wonder, "Why not just install a regular flat-against-the-exterior fire escape?" Indeed, why not? Instead this metallic behemoth disrupts sidewalk use, displaces 4-5 parking spaces, and offends neighbors who can't help but notice it.

The emergency structure was installed as a compromise, the result of a quirky arrangement decades ago for the adjacent properties on the northeast corner of Golden Gate and Lyon. A previous owner built a wooden fire escape from a unit in the Lyon building onto the roof of the Golden Gate building and then into that property's back yard. A wooden fire escape: there's a problem. Onto the roof of the adjacent house: seems like another. This unorthodox and dangerous set of circumstances remained until four years ago when a city housing inspector wrote up the building for code infractions and an illegal housing unit. The city's Board of Permit Appeals apparently saw things differently and ruled the unit in question was legal, but both bodies agreed the old wooden fire escape had to go. No one agreed, however, about where a standard, up-to-code substitute should be installed. The compromise reached among the city groups and the owner and contractor is the ungainly scaffolding hogging street space on Lyon today. No one is pleased with the outcome, including the owner of the Lyon Street building, according to his attorney, Andrew Zacks. "The owner understands this is a blight on the neighborhood," Zacks told BIKE NOPA.

Now this post began with a simple inquiry to the responsible construction firm about when this "blight" would be removed. (The current notice, posted on the scaffolding, lists February 27, 2010 as the end of the permit period). I never intended to conduct an investigation of one more example of the seemingly arcane routes of building code administration in the city. I simply hoped to find that the safety of the tenants would be assured with access to standard fire escapes and that the neighborhood would be spared the ugly, overbuilt scaffolding.

Patrick Buscovich, owner of Patrick Buscovich & Associates Structural Engineers, told BIKE NOPA that a safe and more attractive solution may be near at hand. "One standard fire escape will be installed on the Golden Gate side of the building with another, separate escape on the Lyon Street side for one "land-locked" apartment," he explained. Everyone seems to agree with this outcome: the owner, the Fire Department, the Planning Department, and, perhaps, the tenants. Buscovich thought he would receive a permit for one of the structures in two weeks, with the other to follow. Realistically though, NOPA neighbors might expect a few more months to pass before this formidable building from 1899 stands free of its unsightly accompaniment.

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