Councilman caught off guard by fire inspection of building he bought
A Spokane City Council member is facing off against the Spokane Fire Department over a requirement that he install expensive fire sprinklers in a building he bought earlier this year.
Councilman Steve Salvatori said he might not have decided to buy the historic Buchanan Building, at 28 W. Third Ave., in February had he known about the requirement.
Built in 1911 and at one time a downtown funeral home, the building sat vacant for several years before Salvatori bought it through a bank foreclosure for $200,000.
He invested more than $400,000 to renovate the Buchanan, restoring the original wood floors and skylights and replacing the roof.
Every step of the way, Salvatori’s project moved forward without a hitch or building code problem.
By late July he and business partner Rob Martinson, the CEO of Limelyte Technology, the building’s main tenant, had rented out offices to 15 small and midsize companies.
Ten of those offices were in the basement level of the Buchanan.
In August, however, a fire department inspection determined that Salvatori needed to add fire sprinklers in the basement. That requirement is part of the national fire code covering commercial buildings with basements larger than 1,500 square feet.
Salvatori, who was elected to the City Council in 2011 with a goal of streamlining City Hall permit processes that confront business owners, said he’s not sure how to resolve the standoff.
He’s angry that the fire inspection took place late in the process, well after all the other city-required steps needed to make the building usable.
“If I had known back in February about the need to add basement sprinklers, I might not have even bought the building.” Salvatori said.
Walking through the building recently, Salvatori noted with pride that 13 of the building’s tenants were businesses that had never had an office before.
“I’m not trying to get this taken care of as a city councilman,” Salvatori added. “I’m doing this as a small-business owner.”
“My goals are to find a workable solution and to fix or improve the city’s permitting system, so that others don’t have to go through this like me.”
Salvatori said he’s been told sprinklers can’t be added without spending more than $20,000 to replace the existing narrow water line with a larger water line into the basement.
The current line from the water main is three-quarters of an inch, which was likely the size of pipe used when the building was first built, Salvatori said.
The fire department’s obligation is to ensure public safety, and the city will not consider any exceptions when enforcing the fire code, said Jan Quintrall, the city’s director of business and developer services.
Quintrall said the Buchanan’s problem wasn’t flagged by officials in the city’s building department because Salvatori didn’t apply for any permits for work in the basement.
Existing city building records indicated the Buchanan basement was empty.
“So, all that extensive remodeling in the basement was all done without a permit” by an owner before Salvatori, Quintrall said.
“That happens all the time. People sell a building to someone who thinks everything’s approved, but then the buyer finds out it hasn’t been,” she said.
She said future renovations of commercial buildings ought to include more on-site visits by inspectors and fire officials before the final plans are submitted.
“We have to get out of our cubicles and get out and see the buildings” being reviewed, Quintrall said.
“I want to see the city’s older buildings developed. The city needs to be there and take away all the surprises,” she said.
“Unfortunately, in this case we let Steve down,” she said.
Before buying the Buchanan, Salvatori had earlier purchased two other downtown buildings: the Lorraine, at 308 W. First Ave., and the Plechner, at 609 W. Second Ave. He continues to run both buildings as office centers for businesses looking to pay monthly rent and work downtown near similar entrepreneurs.
Neither building had any issues complying with fire codes, he said.
Spokane Fire Chief Bobby Williams said he and city officials are meeting with Salvatori and helping him find a workable solution.
Among the options are reducing the used basement space to less than 1,500 square feet; creating a direct exit from the basement to the outside; and giving Salvatori a period of time to create an adequate sprinkler system.
Another option, Williams said, was the possibility of complying with the sprinkler requirement by installing a lower-volume misting system. That newer design can operate with less water than a traditional sprinkler system, he said.
The city won’t force Salvatori to shut down the Buchanan’s basement as long as he is working toward a solution, Williams said.
“We try to be flexible as long as the owner submits a plan that provides a reasonable process for addressing the concern,” Williams said.