The owner of an unfinished Oakland apartment building that burned to the ground on Halloween said one or more arsonists entered the second level of the 41-unit complex and spread flammable liquid through the corridors and stairwell before setting it ablaze.
The predawn attack on the three-story property on the 300 block of Lester Avenue east of Lake Merritt remains unsolved, but the case has gained renewed interest as one of a string of blazes that have engulfed housing projects under construction in the East Bay, including a fire last Friday on Valdez Street north of downtown Oakland.
The cause of that fire is not yet known, but two previous fires in Oakland and two fires at the same construction site in Emeryville have been ruled arson by federal investigators. Some city officials and property owners believe the crimes are connected and are motivated by housing politics.
Athan Magganas, owner of the Lester Avenue property, said in an interview that he had added security before the Oct. 31 fire after seeing what happened nearly four months earlier at the Intersection, a $35 million mixed-use project in Emeryville on the Oakland border. The unfinished project was gutted by the first of two fires there ruled to be arson.
Magganas said he thought his building might be the next target. He was right.
“It was unbelievable, heartbreaking,” Magganas said. “I had been trying diligently and was paranoid to try to prevent any potential of that sort. And I failed.”
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is investigating all five East Bay fires, has not made any arrests and said there is no evidence, at least so far, that links the incidents. The ATF would not confirm Magganas’ account of one or more intruders dousing the place with an accelerant.
The agency, though, released surveillance images of a black-clad, hooded suspect who was riding a bicycle and lurking in the middle of the night near the Intersection property on May 13, when it was set ablaze for a second time after construction was restarted.
Rick Holliday, the developer of the Intersection project, called the second fire on his property an “attack on housing.”
The fire on Friday destroyed the Alta Waverly project, which was set to be completed next spring with 196 market-rate apartments and up to 31,500 square feet of retail. Each of the Bay Area fires tore through housing units under construction after igniting in the early hours of the morning.
Magganas, who also believes the fires were probably set by one or more people protesting housing development, said that he had hired security guards to check the complex multiple times a day, but that they saw nothing suspicious before the fire.
A guard called Magganas around 6 a.m. after he saw flames shooting from the building. Magganas watched as firefighters fought the blaze for hours and sought to protect nearby homes.
“They took me to the side and said, ‘Listen, your building’s going to burn down to the ground. It’s going to take a few hours, but there’s nothing we can do,'” Magganas recalled.
Reconstruction has begun. The building was supposed to be finished in February, but will now take at least another 10 months to complete. Magganas said he has added even more security, including guards and surveillance cameras.
“We just hope these arsonists realize they’re doing a lot of damage to the community,” he said. “It hurts everybody. It doesn’t help that you create destruction and put people’s lives at risk.”
Alison Graham is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @alisonkgraham ___
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