Developer Insists Warehouses Can Be Made Into Safe Live-Work Spaces

Owner of Vulcan Lofts blames warehouse owners and lack of education about codes

Where others see warehouses that should be demolished, John Protopappas sees one solution to the housing crisis.

“We are in a city with thousands of old structures. These are resources, these are historical and cultural resources; let’s figure out how to adaptively re-use those structures,” he said.

Protopappas and his company, Madison Park Financial Corp., have been buying and converting warehouses into living spaces for more than 30 years. He shudders when he thinks about last week’s fire at the so-called Ghost Ship warehouse.

“There’s nothing worse than being an owner that’s responsible for people living in a community and something as horrific as that occurs,” he said. “Every owner that’s responsible takes that seriously.”

While others are pointing the finger at city officials, Protopappas thinks the biggest culprit is a lack of education about city codes among warehouse owners. He said, “Many of the owners just don’t know. They should! It’s important to take care of life safety issues. There’s just no way to cut corners there, you just got to do it.”

Protopappas is sure that the warehouse in 31st Avenue did not have a permit for assembly use. “There’s a special set of rules that a property owner has to abide by to have the public coming into the property,” he said, “and that’s quite frankly why the disaster took place.”

Protopappas’ company spent $1.5 million retrofitting the 5th Street Studios in West Oakland. He lives in a spacious apartment in the 26-unit building, converted from a four-story box factory built in 1903. The safety measures are all in clear view: sprinklers, fire alarms, exit signs, fire escapes and seismic beams that are connected to foundation pilings that go down 60 feet into the ground.

Protopappas also owns Vulcan Lofts, a 60-unit complex less than a mile from the Ghost Ship warehouse. Among the tenants are dancers, circus performers and dog walkers. More than a year ago, Protopappas’ company voluntarily installed sprinklers, even though they’re not required. Some of the larger units house as many as six tenants, each paying about $500 a month, a bargain in the tough Bay Area housing market.

But for struggling artists, even those prices can be out of reach. Protopappas admits it’s tough to accommodate those needs. “It’s very difficult to create space at that price level. I mean everything you see in these buildings is expensive," he said.

He points to the affordable housing bond measure that passed recently in Oakland. “Perhaps there’s a way to direct some of those resources to these folks that need assistance,” he said.

After more than 30 years in the business, he’s confident that Oakland can find a way to bring warehouses and industrial spaces up to code – without displacing the artist community.

Watch our investigative series on the Oakland warehouse fire:


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