Hacker Dojo wins reprieve from city

Organizers launch $250,000 fundraising effort for renovations

After the city threatened to shut Hacker Dojo down on Jan. 31, a fire alarm being installed at the last minute will allow computer programmers to use the gathering space as long as a continued effort is made to meet city codes.

Hacker Dojo hired Statcom to install a fire alarm, but the contractor couldn't get it done before the city's deadline.

"We feel they are acting in good faith," said City Attorney Jannie Quinn on Monday, explaining the decision to extend Hacker Dojo's deadline.

If the Dojo doesn't follow through with installing the fire alarm, a hearing could be set for March 6 where an administrative law judge will decide whether to shut the Dojo down or give it more time, Quinn said.

Dojo directors announced Monday that they were kicking off

a campaign to raise $250,000 for a "triage" list of building requirements: fire sprinklers, fire exits and bathrooms that meet the requirements of the American Disabilities Act.

"The fire and safety systems are a top priority," said Katy Levinson, one of the Dojo's directors.

City officials say the Dojo illegally moved into its industrial warehouse space at 140 S. Whisman Road in late 2009, but was able to get a conditional use permit for one year, which expired and was not renewed. The permit came with several requirements that have yet to be met, including a fire alarm.

Levinson said that a fire alarm was being installed over two months ago, but the city forced work to stop because the fire alarm plans weren't approved. The city said, "You were supposed to check with us," Levinson recalled. Dojo directors said, "We thought you outlined all the features pretty well. We're programmers -- we were just going to implement the specs."

City building official Anthony Ghiossi said the alarm was also being installed in two additional spaces the Dojo had leased next door that still needed building permits. City officials did not want to say, "Yeah, go ahead and do that (install the fire alarm), but you can't occupy that space," because of the lack of permits, Ghiossi said.

Levinson said the volunteer-run nonprofit was only recently able to hire staff, one of whom has been working on an almost weekly basis with the city in trying to meet the requirements. Dojo directors say they were frustrated by the Jan. 31 deadline because they had been working as fast as possible to comply.

In the longer term, Dojo director Brian Klug said the Dojo is taking a new approach in seeking building permits. Efforts will focus on an assembly use, rather than office use. That will allow the Dojo to continue having large conferences, events and classes. The city has ordered the Dojo not to have events with more than 49 people -- state fire codes require fire sprinklers and proper fire exits for those.

"When they originally came in years ago they weren't having these big events," Ghiossi said. "They were having small trainings. If you looked on their website the last part of the year (2011), they were having events with 150 people or more."

The large events may have been news to some city officials, but Levinson said the Dojo has been having events with over 150 people ever since it opened.

The Dojo has opened a large roll-up door during large events to provide an exit in case of fire, but Ghiossi said that wasn't acceptable from the city's point of view.

"If it was a cold winter night and that door is down, you are trapped," Ghiossi said. "We don't monitor every event," he added.

Dojo directors say they had to cancel numerous large events, including a job fair and several conferences and large classes that easily draw more than 49 people.

"If you want to host it here you need to stand at the door and when the 47th student person enters you need to tell the next one that the dojo can't permit this next student to come in for fire reasons," Levinson said Dojo organizers were told. "A lot of classes don't want to do that."

Dojo directors are a bit miffed that they can't use their own space for fundraising events.

"Basically, we've been calling people and been saying, 'Can we please use your assembly space?'" Levinson said.

Some have criticized the Dojo's hackers in online forums for not coming up with a hack to meet codes with their own sweat equity, but Levinson says contractors have to be involved for liability reasons. That means some potentially high costs: a $15,000 fire alarm and fire sprinklers that could cost over $100,000. "We have very talented people who would like to do some of these systems," Levinson said.

"The state requires a licensed contractor to handle fire sprinklers and alarms," Ghiossi said.

Another major expense is building several American Disabilities Act-compliant bathrooms. But the floor is a concrete slab, which means moving the plumbing around isn't a trivial task, Levinson said.

When asked if it wouldn't have been easier to just find an office building, Levinson said, "An office building wouldn't permit assembly use. It's hard enough to find a landlord that likes this group of people. The landlord has been quite good to us. We've had landlords that won't deal with us. It's an unconventional business model and they just aren't interested."

"I would like to stay, I like the space," Levinson said. "Having the Dojo has changed the landscape of the area." The landlord "gets a lot of referrals for office space because (certain tenants) want to have space next to the Dojo."

There are two more years left on the Dojo's lease, and Levinson said six Dojo members are liable for those payments themselves if the Dojo can't make them.

The Dojo is looking to sublease two units next door for at least four months while they acquire building permits to use the spaces. The 2,400- and 2,860-square-foot units have broadband and WiFi included and are zoned for light industrial uses.

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3 people like this
Posted by Old Ben
a resident of Shoreline West
on Jan 31, 2012 at 12:50 pm

Why are residential rental units exempt from ADA compliance? What's the logic of that?

3 people like this
Posted by Spaghetti Freddie
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jan 31, 2012 at 1:54 pm

This situation is too much. Lots of people know how to do things. National, state, and local governments issue licenses and permits for a reason. If not, then we are paying a lot in unnecessary taxes that could be spent on far better things. That is the point of government, why it exists.

We are not talking about extending a water line in a private residence (which would likely need a permit too), this is a commercial space that needs to be compliant with the minimum safety standards. Plumbers are trained in what they do, same as computer programmers. While some may confuse the ability to write software with the ability to sweat a pipe, the professional tradesman that do these things for a living are not the morons that the Hacker Dojo people obviously think they are, and the 'hackers' are not trained or licensed to do the work. It is an incredibly simple concept that seems particularly illusive to these guys.

The regulation exists for a reason, Hacker Dojo is in no way special. If not, then get rid of the costly regulation and spend that money on schools.

There are a lot of small businesses and non-profits out there doing things the right way. It disgusts me that the hard work and sacrafices of those people, over decades, has been made essentially meaningless by the city's willingness to look the other way because these guys work with computers. If this was a pizza place, it would never have started, much less been given a conditional use permit, much less than that given an extra year plus (and counting)to get into compliance with the most absolutely basic safety regulations. All the "Hacker Dojo" is being asked to do is behave like everyone else, but that's just too much to ask. They ought to be ashamed of themselves. Just be a good citizen.

Next time I have even a sniff of an issue with any city inspector, I am going straight to city hall with a copy of this ridiculous story. I certainly hope the city doesn't intend on discriminating against me by holding me to a higher standard than they do these guys.

3 people like this
Posted by Steve
a resident of Shoreline West
on Jan 31, 2012 at 2:09 pm

"Dojo directors said, "We thought you outlined all the features pretty well. We're programmers -- we were just going to implement the specs."

The specs say you need to file a plan and get a permit from the city.


A licensed engineer or architect must investigate the work and provide the Building Inspection Division with the following:

1. Three sets of plans covering the scope of work under investigation. Each set must include a site plan, title block with the building construction type, occupancy, address, and a complete floor plan with the area of work under investigation clouded. Two sets of structural calculations and Title 24 Energy Calculations when applicable. Two sets of plans and required calculations must be wet-signed by the engineer or architect responsible for their preparation. See our Submittal Requirements for more detailed information.

2. A letter of investigation certifying that the work is in compliance with all the current codes being enforced by the City of Mountain View. This letter shall be on the architect's or engineer's letterhead and include the date of inspection and shall be wet stamped and signed. The letter shall be directed to the City of Mountain View, Building Inspection Division.

3. Approvals from other City Departments, if required. Building Inspection staff person can direct you to the proper departments for questions regarding additional approvals.

Questions regarding this process may be directed to the Building Inspection Division at (650) 903-6313 from 8:00 AM - 4:00 PM, Monday - Friday.

3 people like this
Posted by Norm
a resident of Rex Manor
on Jan 31, 2012 at 2:15 pm

The City discriminates against those who politically cannot defend themselves due to social norms, like being too successful and making too much money. So yes Old Ben, the City will hold you to higher standards and continue to discriminate from those they can extract money.

3 people like this
Posted by kathy
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Jan 31, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Hacker Dojo is a great concept and in a perfect location as it is not near any homes. I hope they can work out the details with the city and stay in their current location for the long term.

3 people like this
Posted by John Q. Public
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Jan 31, 2012 at 3:32 pm

Why are the Hacker Dojo people complaining? Why should they get a waiver when all other businesses have to comply? What a bunch of Gen Y babies.

3 people like this
Posted by Alex D
a resident of another community
on Jan 31, 2012 at 3:52 pm

"Why should they get a waiver when all other businesses have to comply?"

Because they're not operating for profit, they're operating for the distribution of knowledge.

3 people like this
Posted by John Q. Public
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Jan 31, 2012 at 4:08 pm

Alex: Is Hacker Dojo registered as a non-profit? If not, then they are a business - period. If Hacker Dojo is registered as a non-profit then why are all other non-profits in Mountain View required to adhere to building codes? Or are these Gen Y types "special"?

3 people like this
Posted by David Weekly
a resident of another community
on Jan 31, 2012 at 4:14 pm

John Q.,

Hi! Actually Hacker Dojo is a California Not-For-Profit Corporation having filed for 501(c)(3) charitable recognition from the IRS. So yes, we are a non-profit. Also, we are renting the building, we do not own it, and most renters (commercial or otherwise) might be a little astonished to be demanded to perform a quarter million dollars of upgrades to a building they did not own.

3 people like this
Posted by J
a resident of another community
on Jan 31, 2012 at 5:01 pm

Why are plumbing contractors allowed to rent-seek so heavily? The raw materials and labor for installation are a fraction of the cost. Can't someone import a licensed contractor from some hosing bubble-shocked bedroom community a few hundred miles away to do this?

3 people like this
Posted by John Q. Public
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Jan 31, 2012 at 5:13 pm

David Weekly: your landlord is in violation of code only because of the way you are using the space you rent. Profit/non-profit - makes no difference. Rules are rules even for Gen Y hackers. You already got a warning/waiver from MV so this should not be a surprise - stop acting that way. You are no different than any other renter of commercial space. If the city waives all of these extant regs for you they will be swamped with others seeking similar favoritism. Not going to happen. I would expect that you will be moving soon.

3 people like this
Posted by crasch
a resident of North Whisman
on Jan 31, 2012 at 5:24 pm

@"Spaghetti Freddie" --

"While some may confuse the ability to write software with the ability to sweat a pipe, the professional tradesman that do these things for a living are not the morons that the Hacker Dojo people obviously think they are"

I'm a member of the HackerDojo, and while I can't speak for everyone, I think everyone at the HackerDojo thinks quite highly of tradespeople of all kinds. Indeed, many of our members are tradespeople, and part of the HackerDojo's mission is to encourage people learn the skills required of the trades.

"The regulation exists for a reason..."

As with all aspects of life, there is a tradeoff between risk, reward, and cost. For example, we could make cars safer than they are now, in a variety of ways. But if those safety improvements increase the cost of the car too much, nobody will buy them, and the auto companies will go out of business.

Likewise, if the HackerDojo had been required to make the $250,000 upgrades required by the city at its start, it wouldn't have existed in the first place. Remember, the Dojo is a non-profit. Unlike a commercial business, the Dojo founders did not expect a big payout (or even an ongoing stream of revenue) for taking on the risk of starting the Dojo. It's only now, after a year or two of growth, that the HackerDojo could even contemplate paying for the upgrades that the city wants.

The Dojo has encouraged dozens of startups to form (maybe more), which have hired hundreds of people. If the Dojo didn't exist, those companies wouldn't have existed, and those jobs wouldn't have been created. (Or the Dojo would've been created in a city that didn't require compliance with such onerous regulations upfront)

I think the reward of encouraging those startups to exist in Mountain View far outweighed the somewhat higher risk of operating without the improvements the city wants. I, for one, am grateful that the City has been so accommodating to the Dojo.

"All the "Hacker Dojo" is being asked to do is behave like everyone else..."

I agree, I think that the HackerDojo should be treated just like everyone else. Is the average new business and non-profit in Mountain View required to spend a quarter million dollars just to comply with safety and ADA regulations before they even open shop? If so, my kudos to the would-be pizza shop founders and other physical startups in Mountain View. I'm impressed by anyone willing to front such large amounts of capital and take such risks to start a new pizza shop. And I encourage the city to do what they can to help reduce those costs, and/or spread them out over time.

3 people like this
Posted by judge judy
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Jan 31, 2012 at 11:20 pm

[Post removed due to promoting a website, off topic]

3 people like this
Posted by John Q. Public
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Feb 1, 2012 at 9:44 am

crasch: why should one commercial space renter (Hacker Dojo) get out of having to comply with local / state laws and regulations while all others who rent commercial space are required to adhere to these laws and regulations? Fact is that Hacker Dojo (I have been in there BTW) is using a former glass / machine shop as a meeting space and office space. Two totally different uses. The rules governing use of rented commercial space are different - for a reason. Trying to claim that you and your Hacker pals are special because you are creative and therefore exempt from the rules that apply to everyone else is nonsense. None of this is a surprise - the city already gave you a heads up a year ago. If the costs of procuring a facility exceeded the business/operations model the Hacker Dojo organization developed then that's Hacker Dojo's fault - not the city's. Hacker Dojo should have checked out other rental space that was in compliance with codes covering what it is that they wanted to do. This is like moving into a house next to an airport and then complaining about airplane noise.

3 people like this
Posted by Old Ben
a resident of Shoreline West
on Feb 1, 2012 at 11:34 am

Why is it the tenant's responsibility to bring a rental unit up to code?

3 people like this
Posted by Javadude
a resident of another community
on Feb 1, 2012 at 2:24 pm

John Q., do you realize when you speak derisively of "Gen Y hackers" or "creative people" you are insulting thousands of people? Hacker Dojo absolutely needs to comply with rules but you are fabricating a non-existent blanket sense of entitlement of a "group" of people who in fact are many separate individuals with different views, personalities and yes, of different generations. The Dojo is an important part of the Silicon Valley community, it's not about just sitting around being "creative," problems of the real working world are solved there. Instead of writing post after post mocking the Dojo, why not use your knowledge of the regulations to help solve the problem?

3 people like this
Posted by Huh
a resident of Castro City
on Feb 1, 2012 at 2:43 pm

What does 'Spaghetti Freddie' mean by sweating pipe? That sounds disgusting. I for one do not approve of a pipe-sweating business next to a gymnastics club. People need to sweat pipe at home, not next to little kids.

3 people like this
Posted by Larry Maloney
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Feb 2, 2012 at 9:07 am

I'm a Mountain View resident, and avid member of the Dojo.

Because of the Dojo, I have been able to meet with great people, and start groups that have the potential to make a positive impact here in Mountain View, and Silicon Valley in general. Groups, such as "The Silicon Valley Space Center", with Sean Casey.

Sean is a visionary for the "NewSpace" industry, and he is able to pursue that vision because he can organize meetings at the HackerDojo.

Please read on:

Web Link

3 people like this
Posted by Alex M.
a resident of Willowgate
on Feb 2, 2012 at 4:36 pm

@Huh: If you don't know what it means to sweat a pipe, look it up. It's a plumbing term for melting solder around a pipe.

@Old Ben: While it isn't a residential tenant's responsibility to bring the rental unit up to code, it can conceivably be a commercial tenant's responsibility. My understanding (and I could be wrong) is that the owner of the building has responsibilities for basic code compliance for the building. The USER of the building, on the other hand, may be subject to other, different regulations based on the intended use, which have nothing to do with the building owner's business. The safety codes for a pizza shop would be different from a machine shop, and different from an office/meeting space.

3 people like this
Posted by No
a resident of Whisman Station
on Feb 2, 2012 at 5:20 pm

No one should ever have to hire a plumber. That's what the illegals are for.

3 people like this
Posted by Wow
a resident of North Whisman
on Feb 3, 2012 at 2:30 pm

Wow. Why all of the hostility towards the Dojo? Is it a lack of understanding of what hey do? I am just not seeing what they are doing of saying (and I did read the other thread as well) to generate such anger. I am a resident of MV, have no affiliation w/ them but am glad they are in my community.

3 people like this
Posted by John Q. Public
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Feb 3, 2012 at 9:38 pm

Why these folks (as well meaning, creative, inspired etc as they are) expect to be treated differently than anyone else baffles me. If they had been open with their landlord and the city up front about how they intended to use this space they'd have been told what was required. Complaining after the fact simply points to their inexperience. Now we have to look the other way - but only for them? Why have these regulations in the first place?

3 people like this
Posted by DrDC
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Feb 16, 2012 at 7:22 pm

"The regulation exists for a reason"


Hitler had a reason to attempt genocide. I personally disagree with reason. What do you think?

Hitler also provided regulations that included a requirement that Jews wear stars in public and take their hat off to non Jews in the street. I am sure Hitler had reasons for those too.

Does the Dojo really need to do all this "upgrading" work? The average output of an American during their lifetime is about $3.7 Million. Demand a 250K fitout 15 times and you have consumed the entire productive output of an American life. The way I think about it you might as well shoot someone.

Enough regulation like that and we would only spend our life complying with government regulation and there would be no productive output at all.

Can anyone here demonstrate to me that this regulation really is worth it? Or did someone just have a "reason" to put the regulation in place which is enslaving all of us a just a little bit to the regulation.

3 people like this
Posted by Godwin's Law
a resident of Whisman Station
on Apr 12, 2012 at 5:01 am

Although DrDC's has made a sincere analogy; need I say more?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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