A paper burns

By DAVE O'BRIEN  |  July 12, 2007

In this case, there seem to be several. Other than those IBM Selectrics, first of all, there was no fancy electrical equipment in the GCN office; nor were there obvious hazards of any sort. “I know about the reputation of newspaper offices,” said Cindy Patton, “but this office was extremely neat.” Second, the office had been padlocked at 11 o’clock Tuesday night, after several GCN employees finished folding and collating inserts for the 10th-anniversary issue. That front door was still securely locked when the firefighters arrived Wednesday morning. So no one had entered the building from the front. But that steel window grating on the second floor had been kicked in before the fire department arrived. And third, arson investigators on the scene Wednesday morning made note of the fact that molten metal and glass near that rear window indicated that the fire reached temperatures as high as 1200 degrees — much higher than temperatures that would have resulted from an accidental fire.

“Preliminary testing at the spot where the fire started indicates a strong probability that an accelerant was present,” said David Scondras, long-time community activist and the chief arson investigator for Urban Educational Systems. His conclusion? “Someone went down the alley, up the fire escape, kicked in the grating, and put in an accelerant.” Translation: the fire was set. Scondras and UES launched an instant investigation of the fire and had put together all these pieces of the puzzle by the end of the day. At that point, few of the artists who were in the building when the blaze broke out,  and who had been interviewed by Scondras, had as yet heard from any other arson investigators (both the fire department’s arson squad and agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms had been on the scene). Scondras, however, seemed to think that isolating the possible motives was something that had to be done quickly. “There are many gay-community institutions that are equally vulnerable,” he said. “If this was the opening shot in an unfolding drama of hate, we’ve got to know that immediately.”

Anti-gay hatred is a likely motive for the fire, he said, but there are others. “It could have been a random kook fire,” said Scondras, “but that’s extremely unlikely. Those usually involve abandoned buildings out in the neighborhoods. This was an inconvenient location for that sort of thing.”

On the other hand, 20-24 Bromfield Street, is a rundown building —  a firetrap, the tenants say —in the midst of the downtown shopping district and lots of prime redevelopment space (indeed, the trust that owns the building is known as the Downtown Development Company). It is managed by the Druker Company, which has not been maintaining the building at all, tenants complain. (Phone calls to the management company, in an effort to elicit its response, went unreturned.) Broken windows at the rear of GCN’s second floor office — where the fire started — were not repaired despite continual complaints, Amy Hoffman said. And the leaky roof just kept getting worse. Despite all this, all the third- and fourth-floor tenants received notices a week before the fire that their loft rents, which averaged $150 a month, were being hiked to $200. The talk on Bromfield Street in the fire’s wake last week was that the Druker Company’s redevelopment plans for the area were not going terribly well. Two street-level tenants at 36 Bromfield, also owned by Downtown Development and managed by Druker, moved out after their rents were tripled; these storefronts remain vacant. And burned-out tenants of 20-24 Bromfield were saying that the building was not a likely candidate for redevelopment because of its age, size, and odd construction. None of this, of course, is evidence of anything, precisely, but as Scondras says, “A third possibility is a financial motive.” He intends to investigate all three possibilities.

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