Roller derby team, L.A. officials collide over use of warehouse

The women wearing helmets bearing skate names like WhoreChata, Whoopi Rollberg and DoomsDaisy, had been training in a warehouse in El Sereno for months for a roller derby bout.

But the L.A. Derby Dolls were forced to cancel the Jan. 7 event after the city denied them a temporary special event permit they had given them for bouts every month for more than a year. 

The rejection came around mid-December, not long after a fire during a concert at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland killed 36 people. The city Building and Safety Department changed its policy to no longer issue temporary special event permits to warehouses, said David Lara, a Building and Safety spokesman.

Inspections by the L.A. Fire Department had found no hazards at the warehouse used by the Derby Dolls in February and May. But on Dec. 27, three weeks after the Bay Area tragedy, a fire inspector found 10 hazards and issued the property and business owner a notice to correct fire and life safety violations. 

“After the warehouse fire in Oakland, everything was under so much more scrutiny,” said Amber Greenburg, also known as Oblivienne Westwood. “They have stopped issuing the special event permits since that fire. That obviously affects us.”

Now, the volunteer-run Derby Dolls are trying to raise more than $100,000 to put toward, among other things, the city variance filing fee and architectural design fee so they can officially file for a variance from city zoning laws. 

An underground, virtually grass-roots sport, roller derby made its way into Hollywood through the 2009 movie “Whip It,” which featured Ellen Page, Drew Barrymore and Kristen Wiig. Shauna Cross, who wrote the film adaptation of her novel “Derby Girl,” skated for the L.A. Derby Dolls. 

Founded in April 2003, the Derby Dolls teach women and girls how to skate, through a juniors league, adult league and a fitness program open to the public. Their bi-monthly public bouts cover more than half of their operation cost to keep the league going.

The organization also holds annual health fairs, helps clean up the L.A. River and hosted Mayor Eric Garcetti and the L.A. Domestic Violence Task force at an LAPD appreciation luncheon. 

But not all of the Derby Dolls’ contacts with the city, particularly Building and Safety, were positive. The history between the organization and the city showed the varying speeds — especially prior to the Oakland fire — with which the government bureaucracy moved when it came to complaints related to warehouses. 

The city department received its first complaint in December 2006, from a caller who said there was a roller rink in a space occupied by the organization on South Alameda Street, Lara said. 

The organization was told to speak with department staff to help them obtain a permit to legalize the building, Lara added. The case was closed in September 2007, after the Derby Dolls removed the track, unapproved lighting and seats, he said.

At a new site on West Temple Street, a caller complained in 2008, expressing concern about safety issues regarding more than 1,000 people turning out for derby competitions.

When an inspector was unable to enter the property, the case was referred to the citations branch within code enforcement, but no further action appeared to be taken by code enforcement, Lara said.

After a second complaint, three years later, in May 2011, Building and Safety issued an order to comply to the Derby Dolls requiring a certificate of occupancy for the change of occupancy and use. 

“I don’t like working on speculation, but our code enforcement people can’t explain why there was such a gap,” Lara said. “It could have been because of a resource issue, because we were running low on inspectors at that time, and it could have been also because [temporary special event] permits were being handled and basically allowing the skating rink to occur.”

The order to comply was later rescinded and the case closed in June 2011 because temporary special event permits were being issued to the Derby Dolls, Lara said. 

Banners of Derby Dolls championships don the walls of the latest warehouse at 4900 Alhambra Ave. A disco ball shaped like a skate hangs suspended above the track, which spectators can view from standing risers or metal bleachers. 

The league moved into the Dolloseum, located in a manufacturing zone, after the L.A. Roller Derby Cooperative purchased the Derby Dolls from Kitty Fight Production in February 2015. Since that purchase, the cooperative began the process of a change of use of the warehouse, according to Edie Lundeen, a member of the Derby Dolls. 

After receiving complaints, Building and Safety issued an order to comply in July 2015, citing unapproved land use as a violation. The Derby Dolls applied for a change of use permit in November 2015 to convert the warehouse to a roller skating rink. 

The Dolls said they had a couple of meetings with the city attorney’s office last year; the possibility of a criminal filing if the building change of use was not completed came up, they said.

“However, we have been making steps toward completing the change of use and have kept the city attorney’s office in the loop of our progress,” Lundeen said.  

Then during an inspection of the warehouse on Dec. 27 — following a request from the city attorney’s office — a fire inspector found several hazards. 

Asked why the Fire Department didn’t find violations during the inspections in February and May, Peter Sanders, a fire spokesman, said in an email: 

“The Derby Dolls apparently moved into this facility in late 2015 and it's likely the building wasn't set up for the derby on the dates we inspected in early 2016 or there would have been violations noted.” 

The Fire Department sent a notice to correct fire and safety violations to the property owner and business owner requiring, among other things, discontinuing the use of, and/or removal, of all improvised and substandard wiring; recharging and servicing all portable fire extinguishers; obtaining a certificate of occupancy from Building and Safety; and not hanging anything from sprinkler heads or piping. 

Lundeen said every bout had proper event permitting, an on-site hired fire officer to control occupancy and an outside security crew. 

“Safety has always been at the forefront of our operations, and we take extra measures to assure this remains a priority for our league, skaters and fans,” she said. 

At a recent scrimmage, the Derby Dolls dominated the Beach Cities Roller Derby team. 

Amy Gantvoort, known as DoomsDaisy, made her way off the banked, pink-and-black track with teammate Brenda Davidge, also known as WhoreChata. 

Both have been with the Derby Dolls for about a year, getting into the sport with their daughters. The two women joked that they are now trying to catch up to the 11-year-old girls.

“My daughter is so confident, so strong, so surrounded by all of these powerful women. She is 100% herself when she’s here,” said Gantvoort, who is an attorney.

“It would be such a shame to lose this program. We’ve got to get the money and get this rolling again … it’s been around so long, it’s like an L.A. staple.”

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