warehouse fire Oakland

Warehouse fire in Oakland

by Duane Ausherman

The horrible disaster in Oakland on Dec 2nd, 2016, reminded me of a time when I owned a similar business over 40 years ago.

One New Year’s Eve, I went with friends to a party at a warehouse for the Peace and Freedom party.  I saw a “for rent” sign in a window.  I rented that space for my outlaw motorcycle repair shop.  I was 25 years old.

It was the first floor of a narrow but deep, three-story building.  Next door was a large two-story building.  The lower floor was the landlord’s machine shop.  The top floor was rented out by the Peace and Freedom Party.  The top floor of those two buildings was joined and at the same level.

My small business was thriving, but the two upper floors and top floor of the landlord’s building were languishing.  I was in the habit of paying my rent a few days early.  This practice impressed the landlord, and within six months, he asked me if I would take the two floors above me and the one above him for $400 a month rent.  That amounted to well over 6,000 sq. Ft. was a bargain, for sure.  That also included my rent of $65 a month, so actually, I would get the additional space for only $335 a month.

I asked for a few weeks to research my options, and he agreed.  I put up a few signs at the San Francisco Art Institute and got a lot of replies.  The demand was so high that I could dictate my terms.

In the past, the large upper floor had been used by a dance studio.  To make the floor decent for dancing, they covered the floor with thick sheets of 4 ft X 8 ft plywood and painted it.  I figured that I could pull the plywood up to make walls for the art studio space.  My landlord agreed to my plan, and it was mine for a song.

I kept the middle floor for the expansion of my shop and made the top part into artist studios.  There was only one main entrance with a fire exit at the other end of the building.  Anyone could see that this was a severe fire hazard.  To mitigate the hazard, I built the studios so that the hallways gave the shortest distance to one of the two access points.

I calculated the rent by the square foot in such a way that full occupancy would result in just over $1400 a month.  I assumed that I could keep it at about 90%.  I would have two floors for my business and over $800 a month in profit.

My rules were quite strict

  1. No living, maybe a night here and there as artists may work some odd hours.
  2. No musicians and quiet time at all times. Keep your radio low and turn it off if you get any complaint from another artist.  Deal directly with each other and try to leave me out of it.
  3. No smoking is allowed in the building. No drunken behavior.   No drugs. The penalty was an instant eviction.
  4. Hallways must be kept clear at all times.
  5. First and last month’s rent in advance. Next month’s rent late five days was the automatic notice of leaving, and I would start showing it immediately.
  6. Renters were responsible for any infractions by their guests. They were asked to show any guest where the exits were and the location of the several fire extinguishers.  I actually would test a guest from time to time to see if they had been taught.
  7. Safety was paramount, and I pointed out that we all work in a wooden fire trap and must be vigilant. I encouraged renters to report any infractions for the safety of all.

The demand was so high that I always had a waiting list.  The rules were mostly followed, as I was serious, and they soon saw the consequences for failure to follow the rules.  The artists worked together as much as possible, as the rent was under half of any other option in San Francisco.

I provided several trash barrels, and I hauled the trash away as part of the rent.  They had 24/7 access too.

My typical work week was 65 hours, and I, too, worked odd hours.  I might close up just after 6 pm, go home and eat, take a nap, and return at 10 pm to work until 3 am.  Since my schedule wasn’t predictable, compliance with my rules was good because I might show up at any hour.

This worked out very well, and I found that I was able to live on the rental income and bank the motorcycle repair profits.  Less than ten months after arriving in San Francisco, I had saved enough to buy my first house.

Over time, my BMW motorcycle business grew to the point that I was awarded a franchise in Marin County, just across the Golden Gate Bridge.

I found a manager to take care of the artist’s studio for me.  Eventually, the landlord gave the artist’s studio rental to him, as I had sold my franchise, retired, and moved over 350 miles away.  I was 33 years old.  My old manager relaxed the rules, and within a year, it burned down, but nobody was injured.

I was getting calls from artists complaining about the changes. I know nothing about the fire except that I have my suspicions.

Updated 30 March 2023