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City Officials & The Arts Community Meet Tuesday To Discuss Shut Downs

by Hady Mawajdeh 8 Aug 2016 5:55 PM

Recently, art gatherings and galleries in Dallas have been cited, and sometimes shut down, for a variety of zoning and code violations. Locals in the arts scene feel like they’re being targeted by city safety officials. So, the two sides are meeting Tuesday to discuss what can be done to keep the city’s arts scene alive. 

Some galleries, like The Basement Gallery in Oak Cliff, have closed because they can’t meet city requirements. Others, like Kirk Hopper Fine Art in Deep Ellum, are facing the possibility of closure. The arts community is frustrated by a complicated mix of requirements and permits from a variety of city departments. And underneath it all, questions are being raised about how the city zones for art galleries.

Giovanni Valderas, assistant director of Kirk Hopper,  says it’s time to fix this problem.

“Now’s a really great opportunity for not only Office of Cultural Affairs, [but also] the City of Dallas to really concentrate on fixing the zoning because that’s the issue,” says Valderas.

Art&Seek wanted to know when and why these artist gatherings were attracting the attention of Dallas Fire-Rescue.

Jason Evans, the public information officer for the fire department,  informed us that Fire-Rescue had received their first complaint about an “illegal assembly” back in May of 2015 via Twitter.

“This gathering was an art showroom that was hosting an event with over 150 people in attendance,” says Evans, “This referenced event consisted of a large tent, catering, and music on top of the roof without any of the necessary permits from Building Inspection or Fire Inspection.”

Evans says that neither the tent nor the gallery were inspected for safety concerns, like whether or not exiting during an emergency could be handled safely. That put the Design District and similar areas on the department’s radar for inspection.

Later in 2015, Evans says Dallas Fire-Rescue received requests for fire watches at after-hours events that were planned in showrooms and studios off Oak Lawn Avenue. He says the owners and managers of the showrooms and venues were renting out space in their businesses for events that included food and music, which lead to an increased number of people in the spaces and those showrooms didn’t have the proper certificates.

“Businesses with certificates of occupancy for Business (Studios/ Showrooms) were having the types of events that would, by definition, require a certificate of occupancy as an Assembly,” says Evans.

He explained that a certificate of occupancy for Assembly requires more safety precautions than certificates of occupancy for Businesses. To obtain a certificate of occupancy for Assembly you must have a sprinkler system and multiple exits with properly lit signage.

In a phone interview with Art&Seek, Deputy Chief and Fire Marshal Chris Martinez reiterated that Fire-Rescue and city code compliance officers are just doing their jobs and that safety was the main priority.

“It’s about life safety. You know, at the end of the day we just want to make sure people go home,” says Martinez.

Dallas Fire-Rescue aren’t the only ones that are concerned about safety though. Artists also have a desire for safety, but the ways that they interact with their audience – opening night parties, live performances and pop-up shows – don’t currently align with city rules. And that worries Valderas. Kirk Hopper has been visited three times and recently had a charitable event shut down, even after coordinating with the city.

“If you don’t take of the issue really quickly, these people will be out of business. And then, the arts and culture scenes suffers. The vibrancy ends. And, this is something you need to fix, like immediately,” says Valderas.

Office of Cultural Affairs Director Jennifer Scripps also sees the importance of fixing this issue. She’s knows that artists are helping neighborhoods gain a reputation for being cool.

“All sorts of artist venues are extremely important because this is how artist and creative people get to interact with the public and the market,” says Scripps, “It also creates a sense of place in exciting neighborhoods. If you see neighborhoods such as the Cedars that are really evolving, it’s because the artists have led the way.”

Chief Martinez says he hopes to work with artists, and other city departments like the office of cultural affairs, code compliance and building inspection, to try and come up with creative – and legal – solutions to keep artists happy. But, Chief Martinez says they’re also trying to avoid tragedies.

““Sometimes it happens where you’re looking at the news and you see a two, three alarm fire, and I’ll be honest with you – your heart skips a beat, because you’re thinking I was there, and, you know, you carry that with you,” says Martinez.

City officials will meet with the arts community Tuesday at the central branch of the Dallas Public Library.

In an email last week, Martinez also answered several other questions we has about this matter and the answers can be seen in the Q&A below:

A&S: Are artists and galleries being targeted by the Fire Marshal’s office? If so, why? 

JLE Though Dallas Fire-Rescue (DFR) has monitored this area for this particular problem, it has in fact been a CITY-WIDE issue. DFR has distributed notices of violations for numerous locations throughout the city to cease operations due to the lack of a valid Certificate of Occupancy (CO) to operate an assembly use and/or the lack of safety systems required for the given occupant load and activities.

The certificate of occupancy is the first step in the inspection process.  This document will let DFR know how a particular location is classified, and more importantly, what specific safety measures are required for that occupancy classification by the adopted fire code.  Permits are also a very critical part of the inspections process, as this will indicate that the necessary city departments have had an opportunity to inspect/review their respective portion of the event.

A&S: If these artists and galleries are breaking rules by operating a showroom in the wrong zones – despite the fact that they’ve been doing it for years without prior interruption – is there someone that they can talk with to ensure these issues do not persist? 

JLE While the business may have been there for a period as a general business, and operated as such, the Assembly is a new use that must go through the CO process for review.  In addition to the proper CO, the zoning for a particular area may not allow for a particular assembly use.  In some cases, DFR has encountered businesses without a certificate of occupancy to operate at all.   This is in violation of the Dallas Fire and Building Codes and Chapter 52-Administrative Procedures for the Construction Codes, respectively:

114.1 Use and occupancy.  No building or structure shall be used or occupied, and no change in the existing occupancy classification of a building or structure, or portion thereof, shall be made until the building official has issued a certificate of occupancy therefore as provided herein.  Issuance of a certificate of occupancy shall not be construed as an approval of a violation of the provisions of the Dallas Building Code or of other ordinances of the jurisdiction.

306.1 Use or occupancy. No structure or land shall be used or occupied, no change in the existing occupancy classification, zoning use, or the tenant or occupant of a structure or portion of a structure shall be made, and no floor area increases or decreases of any existing tenancy area of a structure shall be used or occupied, until the building official has issued a certificate of occupancy and a fee has been paid as required in Section 303 of this chapter.”

Once again, it is not the given use listed on a current certificate of occupancy that is the concern; nor is it the manner in which the building originally operated.  The issue stems from using the building or space as an assembly.  In most cases, assembly use requires the addition/installation of enhanced life safety systems such as emergency/egress lighting, low level exit signage, fire alarm and/or automatic fire sprinkler systems.

A&S: Are there plans to develop new zoning rules or new certificates of occupancy for galleries that have events to promote the works within their own galleries? 

JLE The Fire Marshal’s Office, Dallas Building Inspection, and the Office of Cultural Affairs have begun working together to find viable solutions for these and similar situations throughout our City.