Local artists gathered their belongings from the Bell Foundry arts building as it is condemned by the city. (Baltimore Sun video)
When Baltimore fire and housing inspectors entered the Bell Foundry arts building this week to investigate a complaint about substandard conditions inside, they were confronted with a "tragedy waiting to happen," a high-ranking housing official said Wednesday.
The commercial warehouse of art studios and nonprofit theater space in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District had been partially converted into illegal living quarters, and had so many major safety violations that there was no option but to immediately evacuate the building and evict the dozens of artists who were tenants there, said Katy Byrne, deputy assistant commissioner for litigation in the city housing department's permits and code enforcement division.
As the inspectors made their way further into the sprawling, mazelike building, the violations appeared one after another, Byrne said.
A rickety, makeshift third floor of living space was discovered above the second floor; ceiling beams intended to hold the roof up had been removed; major appliances like a stove were plugged into an ungrounded, overwhelmed electrical system; lights were hung from flammable rope; combustible and flammable chemicals were stored near wood and other debris, according to Byrne.
Also, an unsanctioned public assembly space with a stage and a bar was found in the basement without sufficient means for moving people in and out; there was evidence of a past electrical fire; there were no fire barriers between living and working spaces; and a heating system lacking a permit was blowing air back into a furnace room — creating conditions ripe for carbon monoxide poisoning and a possible explosion, Byrne said.
"Oh my God, this is horrible," Byrne said of her reaction. "We need to get people out of here right away. We need to get out of here right away. The electricity needs to stop, and we need to assess everything that we have."
"Thank goodness we did receive a complaint and people are safe," she added. "I don't think it was lost on any of us — we all saw what happened in Oakland."
The closing of the Bell Foundry on Monday came just three days after a fire during a late-night electronic dance music concert in an arts space called the Ghost Ship in Oakland, Calif., killed at least 36 people. The Baltimore evictions have localized a national debate that started in Oakland about the affordability and safety of housing for artists, particularly in old, repurposed industrial buildings like the Bell Foundry and the Ghost Ship.
Byrne said she did not know the nature of the initial complaint that prompted the inspection of the Bell Foundry, but acknowledged that the deaths in Oakland were on the minds of housing officials as they responded to the North Calvert Street property.
She said housing officials "try to balance public safety with ... the upheaval it causes people when they have to leave where they're working or where they are living," but the Bell Foundry was "so extraordinarily dangerous" that it had to be condemned.
"Sometimes we have to make those hard calls that we have to evacuate a building for public safety," she said. "It's not something that we enjoy doing, but it's something we have to do."
Joseph McNeely, one of the Bell Foundry's landlords, said Wednesday that he was still waiting for the city to inform him in writing of all the problems in the building so that he could determine its future. He declined to comment on the specific violations Byrnes outlined.
On her first full day in office Wednesday, Mayor Catherine E. Pugh said she had not been aware of the forced evictions as they were occurring but intends to launch an investigation into the circumstances of the closure and seek ways to support those who were displaced.
"We value artists living in the city. We have a great arts community. What we don't want to happen is what we just saw happen in California. We don't want that same type of condition to happen here," Pugh said. "We want to make sure wherever they reside, they're safe and they're able to continue to contribute to our arts community and our art environment."
Pugh said she would also look into concerns among some in the local arts community that the Bell Foundry evictions targeted people of color and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community who were among the building's tenants.
"We will not leave them out there hanging," Pugh said. "I will reach out to the arts community and make sure we find some accommodations."
Byrne said there were two valid permits at the Bell Foundry: one, issued in 2009, for "artisan and craft work" on the first floor, and a second, issued in 2010, for the same kind of work on portions of the second floor. The building has never received a permit as living space.
Unlike with residential and multifamily dwelling permits, such artisan and craft work permits do not require annual inspections, Byrne said, and the Bell Foundry had not been inspected since the 2010 permit was issued. At that time, it was up to code for its permitted uses.
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The housing department had received complaints about the Bell Foundry in the intervening years, but only regarding exterior issues such as trash, graffiti and weeds, Byrne said.
Now that the building has been vacated, Byrne said her department's "second order of business" is to work with the building's owners to see if certain spaces in the building — such as the Baltimore Rock Opera Society's first-floor space — can be brought up to code and reopened quickly.