Upham's Corner Online

City of Boston Fire Department - 65 E Cottage Street and Maxwell Flea Market

Posted: Tuesday, November 2, 2010
Nancy J Conrad

Editor's Note:  
In August 2010 The City of Boston Fire Deparment filed a criminal complaint against the Department of Neighborhood Development.  It is not often that one city department files a complaint against another city department, no less one that is "criminal" but that's what happened here.

This narrative is based on an interview with Fire Marshal Kodzis and was approved by him September 27, 2010.
As of December 2009 DND real estate became the owner of 65 E. Cottage St. through a tax lien foreclosure.  Hal Cohen (prior owner) was no longer responsible for the tenants and their safety.  Rather, that fell to the Department of Neighborhood Development.  As a result DND requested a walk-through and an inspection by both the fire department and ISD.  This occurred in early January 2010.

DND made it clear they wanted the tenants of 65 E. Cottage St. including the flea market to not be disturbed during this change of ownership.  As a result DND requested a statement from the fire department as to what would be required to upgrade the building while maintaining the tenants in place.  In response the Boston Fire Department issued an abatement order dated February 22, 2010 with this aspect in mind.  

Please note:

Although Hal Cohen had until one year after the foreclosure date to redeem ownership of the building, he was no longer the owner of record. DND Real Estate was now responsible for the condition of the building including the leases and tenant safety.

One of the first steps taken by the fire department was to issue an immediate vacate of both the second and third floors. No tenants were to be allowed there because of the lack of an adequate fire alarm notification system.  In Fire Marshall Kodzis' words, 

"By the time the fire reached the second and third floors, there would be no way for anyone to safely vacate the building from these floors."

Apparently the 2/22/2010 abatement was substantial in nature -- very costly to upgrade the building and this was only for the fire department requirements.  ISD had also conducted an inspection.  We do not know the results of this, but any requirement cited by ISD only added to the cost of the upgrade.

Without going into a lot of detail, Fire Marshal Kodzis cited three major categories:
  1. Building fire alarm notification system 
  2. Building fire load
  3. Building egress
A fire alarm notification system requires both visual and audible components.  The 65 E. Cottage St. building was fully noncompliant in this category.

Building fire load relates to building contents and is a function of type, size, and rate of burn.  So for example a few pieces of large wood contrast with to a pile of sawdust.  One takes a long time to burn; the other goes up in flames quickly.  

The individual Maxwell Flea Market "booths" contained many small items which could burn quickly.  As a result this section of the building was deemed to have a high fire load.  Again in combination with the inadequate fire alarm system, this situation only made the fire profile of the building worse.  Finally, the building did not satisfy egress requirements (fire exits).
The Boston Fire Department was in frequent contact with DND and emphasized the importance of rapid response regarding the abatement.  We asked Fire Marshal Kodzis why it took a full six months before definitive action was taken.  After all the fire department's normal protocol is to followup on an abatement order within 15 days.

The answer provided is interesting.  It's not so easy for a city department to respond in 15 days.  They must follow a public bidding process, making sure they do not violate any bidding laws.  Especially given the extent of the repairs necessary to upgrade the building, the process could not be handled quickly.  All the while, of course, the tenants including the Maxwell Flea Market vendors were using a building that was considered unsafe.
Some time in August 2010 Fire Marshal Kodzis determined that enough time had passed.  In speaking again with DND he also found out that the city would not be complying with the Fire Department abatement – period.  There was no money available to do it. 

Accordingly based on standard Fire Department protocol, Fire Marshal Kodzis swore out a complaint to the Boston Housing Court against the City of Boston DND. Please note that it is a serious step when one city department goes to court against another city department. It is not an indictment of DND,  Fire Marsh Kodzis stated, but a reflection of the reality and the apparently unsafe conditions in the building.

At the same time a higher authority needed to step in and make sure that the proper steps were followed for the safety of everyone involved. This is the housing Court. As noted above it is the Housing Court that becomes the enforcing authority when a complaint is sworn out.

Both the Fire Department and DND appeared in Housing Court on opposite sides. The first order of business was for Housing Court to determine the nature of the complaint. Had DND been so negligent as to warrant a criminal complaint being filed? After some discussion Housing Court deemed this a civil matter.

Fire Marshall Kodzis stated:  "It is a sad fact of life that the vacate order was passed down to the owner of the flea market as a complete surprise. Marcy Navarro had no warning that any building safety issues had been brewing since the beginning of the year."

As of noon on August 26, 2010 Ms. Navarro received notification that the flea market was officially closed, that the locks had been changed and that the flea market tenants, upon showing identification, would be allowed in the building to remove their belongings.

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