Mountain View Voice

News - February 3, 2012

Hacker Dojo's doors to stay open

Fundraising effort begins with $250,000 goal

by Daniel DeBolt

After the city threatened to shut Hacker Dojo down on Jan. 31, a fire alarm being installed at the last minute will allow computer programmers to use the gathering space as long as a continued effort is made to meet city codes.

Hacker Dojo hired Statcom to install a fire alarm, but the contractor couldn't get it done before the city's deadline.

"We feel they are acting in good faith," said City Attorney Jannie Quinn on Monday, explaining the decision to extend Hacker Dojo's deadline.

If the Dojo doesn't follow through with installing the fire alarm, a hearing could be set for March 6 where an administrative law judge will decide whether to shut the Dojo down or give it more time, Quinn said.

Dojo directors announced Monday that they were kicking off a campaign to raise $250,000 for a "triage" list of building requirements: fire sprinklers, fire exits and bathrooms that meet the requirements of the American Disabilities Act.

"The fire and safety systems are a top priority," said Katy Levinson, one of the Dojo's directors.

City officials say the Dojo illegally moved into its industrial warehouse space at 140 S. Whisman Road in late 2009, but was able to get a conditional use permit for one year, which expired and was not renewed. The permit came with several requirements that have yet to be met, including a fire alarm.

Levinson said that a fire alarm was being installed over two months ago, but the city forced work to stop because the fire alarm plans weren't approved. The city said, "You were supposed to check with us," Levinson recalled. Dojo directors said, "We thought you outlined all the features pretty well. We're programmers — we were just going to implement the specs."

City building official Anthony Ghiossi said the alarm was also being installed in two additional spaces the Dojo had leased next door that still needed building permits. City officials did not want to say, "Yeah, go ahead and do that (install the fire alarm), but you can't occupy that space," because of the lack of permits, Ghiossi said.

Levinson said the volunteer-run nonprofit was only recently able to hire staff, one of whom has been working on an almost weekly basis with the city in trying to meet the requirements. Dojo directors say they were frustrated by the Jan. 31 deadline because they had been working as fast as possible to comply.

In the longer term, Dojo director Brian Klug said the Dojo is taking a new approach in seeking building permits. Efforts will focus on an assembly use, rather than office use. That will allow the Dojo to continue having large conferences, events and classes. The city has ordered the Dojo not to have events with more than 49 people — state fire codes require fire sprinklers and proper fire exits for those.

"When they originally came in years ago they weren't having these big events," Ghiossi said. "They were having small trainings. If you looked on their website the last part of the year (2011), they were having events with 150 people or more."

The Dojo has opened a large roll-up door the bigger large events to provide an exit in case of fire, but Ghiossi said that wasn't acceptable from the city's point of view.

"If it was a cold winter night and that door is down, you are trapped," Ghiossi said. "We don't monitor every event," he added.

Dojo directors say they had to cancel numerous large events, including a job fair and several conferences and large classes that easily draw more than 49 people.

"If you want to host it here you need to stand at the door and when the 47th student person enters you need to tell the next one that the dojo can't permit this next student to come in for fire reasons," Levinson said Dojo organizers were told. "A lot of classes don't want to do that."

Dojo directors are a bit miffed that they can't use their own space for fundraising events.

"Basically, we've been calling people and been saying, 'Can we please use your assembly space?'" Levinson said.

Some have criticized the Dojo's hackers in online forums for not coming up with a hack to meet codes with their own sweat equity, but Levinson says contractors have to be involved for liability reasons. That means some potentially high costs: a $15,000 fire alarm and fire sprinklers that could cost over $100,000. "We have very talented people who would like to do some of these systems," Levinson said.

The state requires a licensed contractor to handle fire sprinklers and alarms, Ghiossi.

Another major expense is building several American Disabilities Act-compliant bathrooms. But the floor is a concrete slab, which means moving the plumbing around isn't a trivial task, Levinson said.

When asked if it wouldn't have been easier to just find an office building, Levinson said, "An office building wouldn't permit assembly use. It's hard enough to find a landlord that likes this group of people. The landlord has been quite good to us. We've had landlords that won't deal with us. It's an unconventional business model and they just aren't interested."

Nevertheless, Levinson said the Dojo would be doing a disservice to its members if it didn't consider the option of moving to a more suitable space.

"I would like to stay, I like the space," Levinson said. "Having the Dojo has changed the landscape of the area." The landlord "gets a lot of referrals for office space because (certain tenants) want to have space next to the Dojo."

There are two more years left on the Dojo's lease, and Levinson said six Dojo members are liable for those payments themselves if the Dojo can't make them.

The Dojo is looking to sublease two units next door for at least four months while they acquire building permits to use the spaces. The 2,400- and 2,860-square-foot units have broadband and WiFi included and are zoned for light industrial uses.

Email Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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