City officials say that the popular classroom and open office space for computer programmers, Hacker Dojo, may be red-tagged and shut down on Jan. 31 if the non-profit does not meet some potentially pricey city code requirements.
The Dojo, which is used as an office and collaborative space by 300 programmers who pay a $100 monthly fee, has been open since late 2009. Until last fall, Dojo board members say city officials had been relatively permissive as the Dojo operated without building permits in an industrial garage space, and was welcomed by some officials as a sort of incubator for tech start-ups.
But Dojo directors admit that they didn't know much about city requirements when they picked the building at 140 S. Whisman Road and moved in.
"We had been trying to work with them," said the city's economics development director, Ellis Berns.
City officials have been saying, "You gotta start meeting the terms of the conditional use permit," he said, which required a fire alarm and building permits. Because those and other requirements weren't met, the permit expired.
"Then we learned not too long ago that they leased additional space," Berns said.
Last fall the Dojo was set to double in size, leasing a pair of 2,500-square-foot spaces next-door that were to be used for classes and work space.
"We were excited at that point," said David Weekly, one of the Dojo's directors, of the expansion. "It made us the largest hacker space in the world."
"We had a small celebration, but it wasn't a big, crazy celebration" Weekly said. "That kind of pushed them over the line. They were starting to see us as a commercial event space."
Then the city began stepping up the enforcement of its codes, he said.
Not wanting it to occupy more space without building permits, the city ordered the Dojo to vacate the new spaces, which the Dojo is now looking to sublet.
The city also began pressing for more codes to be met. Weekly rattled off what appear to be significant costs: $150,000 to make three bathrooms compliant with the American Disabilities Act, $130,000 for fire sprinklers, and potentially thousands more in building permit fees and other improvements.
The Dojo also lacks a required fire alarm, which could cost $15,000. Without one, city officials say they'll seek the closure of the Dojo by the end of the month.
"They want us to commit to a traffic study, build concrete walls around the dumpster and have the landlord re-slope the driveways," Weekly said.
City staff said that it hasn't been determined whether the building has adequate exits and parking.
"We were told we wouldn't have to install fire sprinklers and we could get a variance on ADA bathrooms -- basically we could continue to run the place as is," Weekly said. "They could exert some leniency, but they ran out of patience."
City officials say code enforcement officers saw the Dojo advertising events online that would exceed the Dojo's 49-person occupancy limit for a building without fire sprinklers.
"These are statewide building and fire codes we are implementing here," said Ellis Berns, saying that safety is the city's primary concern.
The Dojo has had to cancel numerous money-raising events and classes that easily attract more than 49 people. "Our membership is down considerably" without the classes, said Weekly. "We lost dozens of members. We had classes on machine learning and Android programming."
Also cancelled was a job fair in which employers and job seekers switch roles: programmers sit at tables presenting their work to potential employers who make the rounds.
"We've gotten dozens of people hired from these," Weekly said. The event brings in up to 150 people and "raises a good chunk of change. But we can't run it this year and these people can't get hired."
Weekly said that a former mayor and city staffers attended a previous job fair, despite the fire code violations. "They attended, they were huge fans," Weekly said. "This is all part of a feeling that the city has changed its mind" about the Dojo.
Berns has spent a lot of time speaking with Dojo directors about the issues, as it is his job to bring in and retain new businesses in the city. But Berns said it's nearly gotten to the point that "it's out of my hands, it goes to the code enforcement department."
City Attorney Jannie Quinn, who runs the city's code enforcement department, said that at the very least, the Dojo needs a fire alarm and to commit to a plan for obtaining building permits by the end of the month. The fire department and police department also may respond if there are more than 49 people in the building and "figure out whether or not to cite them or take some other enforcement action against them."
"They don't have permission to conduct the use that they are now," Quinn said. "They just didn't have planning approval or building permits to allow such a use."
City officials caution others who might find themselves in a pickle with the city when moving into a building.
"If they would have come into the city and said, 'Here's what were proposing to do,' we would say, 'Here's the kinds of things you need to do to comply with the building code,'" Berns said.
"We don't want to be in these situations, we want businesses to succeed," he said. "But we cannot compromise on health and safety. We are really encouraging them to move forward with this and to just get through this."
But with the pressure to meet all the other costly requirements, Weekly said the situation seemed "frustrating and hopeless."
Weekly said the Dojo has enough money -- $15,000 -- to put in fire alarms.
"We just wish they would take into account the reality of the situation," he said. "What I don't think they realize is this is a volunteer-run nonprofit. We don't have millions of dollars coming out of our ears because we are affiliated with numerous computer-related things."