Does Russell Industrial Center in Detroit pose major fire risk?

Dozens of violations reported by firefighters inspecting complex

DETROIT – After the smoke from the Oakland, California, warehouse fire cleared, 36 bodies were discovered. The blaze was blamed on safety violations. Could something like that happen in Metro Detroit?

The Local 4 Defenders wondered if a similar space, such as the Russell Industrial Center in Detroit, could pose a similar risk. The Russell Industrial Center is home to the largest artist community in the Midwest.

How safe is the building? Is it kept up to date on fire safety standards? Defender Karen Drew investigated.

The Russell Industrial Center might look abandoned to passing drivers, but there's a lot of activity in the complex, which is made up of seven buildings, 2.2 million square feet of land and 184 tenants.

Inside the Russell Industrial Center is a flurry of activity. Spaces are used as art studios, galleries and exhibitions for artists.

Local 4 has done several stories on the complex and the creative people who make their art, furniture, glass photography and other products there.

But how safe is the complex?

On July 25, 2016, there was a building fire in the complex. A report showed insulation was ignited because of an electrical failure or malfunction. On the same day, there was a smoke scare caused by an electrical short.

On Oct. 7, there was another building fire on the ground level in a storage area. Another building caught fire on Oct. 27. In mid-November, there was a smoke-removal situation.

Some artists who rent space at the Russell Industrial Center said they're concerned about their safety and the safety of the entire building. But they're took afraid to speak up.

Recent building inspections showed that on Aug. 22, the site failed an annual building inspection. It failed the re-inspection on Oct. 4 and received five non-compliance issues in November.

The main concern in that November inspection was falling bricks.

When the Local 4 Defenders visited the complex with undercover cameras, they saw sprinkler heads covered with bags, overflowing dumpsters by the exit and temporary wooden walls that could be fire hazards.

In the Dec. 9 inspection from the Detroit Fire Department, firefighters reported 25 failures at the complex. The Russell Industrial Center was cited for poor maintenance of sprinkler systems, accumulated combustible waste material, obstructed exits and several other violations.

"Due to the extreme fire load witnesses within the occupancies and the inability to verify any fire protection systems functionality, this complex is in violation of the fire codes," Edward Davis, Detroit fire inspector, said in the report. "It is imperative that a valiant effort be made to correct these infractions immediately."

The complex was told to correct the infractions immediately, but two months later, the Defenders have learned many of the violations still exist.

Despite the non-compliance issues, artists and 184 vendors still work at the Russell Industrial Center.

What does the city have to say about the safety of the complex? The fire marshal wasn't willing to talk about the findings on camera, but he released a statement.

"It's not uncommon to find numerous violations in a space that size," the statement said. "However, none were issues that would prevent them to continue operating while they are being addressed.

"At present, there are still outstanding violations at this location. We will continue to diligently pursue all unresolved issues until they are in full compliance."

The Defenders reached out to Dennis Kefallinos, the owner of the complex. He wasn't willing to do an on-camera interview about the violations. His marketing spokesperson said they are aware of the violations and are working to correct them.

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About the Authors:

Karen Drew is the anchor of Local 4 News First at 4, weekdays at 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. She is also an award-winning investigative reporter.

Derick is the Lead Digital Editor for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.