The city has launched a "blitz" of elevator inspections, stepping up its review of thousands of devices that have not received annual checkups, but officials acknowledge it could still take years to examine all of them.
Of roughly 26,000 elevators, lifts and similar equipment, the Tribune reported last week that about 65 percent had not had an inspection in the past year, as required by law to help ensure public safety. Outside the downtown Central Business District, about 82 percent had not been inspected.
After Tribune inquiries about that gap, the city announced a multipart plan to increase annual elevator inspections, which included focusing inspectors on community areas with the highest concentration of elevators and then prioritizing devices that have gone the longest without an inspection.
But with only six "on the ground" inspectors, the city said it could take a few years to check all the uninspected devices. A newly hired seventh inspector is currently answering telephone complaints.
John Bartlett, executive director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, which receives regular complaints about problem elevators, lauded the city's move to do more inspections but called the potential time frame worrisome.
"You don't generally think of a 'blitz' as taking years," Bartlett said. "There has to be a quicker way to do this. Elevators, particularly for seniors and those with disabilities, clearly impact people's living and working conditions."
Bartlett suggested that the city could raise inspection fees or institute larger fines for improperly maintained elevators in order to hire more inspectors.
Chicago Department of Buildings officials said those moves would require action by the City Council. They said they are talking to the elevator inspector union about hiring more inspectors but would not specify how many positions they want to fill.
The myriad pieces of the city's reform plan could reduce the time it takes to fulfill the lapsed inspections, Buildings Department spokeswoman Caroline Weisser said.
"The blitz is just one part of this," Weisser said. "As these efficiencies continue to be implemented we will ... revise inspection timelines as necessary."
In between inspections, the city has stressed that building owners are responsible for the safety of their devices. Many building owners already have reputable maintenance crews working on their elevators on a regular basis, according to experts.
"The city's role with inspections is to serve as an important check on building owners whose responsibility is to maintain all equipment in their building, per the city code," city officials said in a written statement.
But Kim Schilf, president and chief executive officer of the Lincoln Park Chamber of Commerce, called the backlog troubling and said the city should take responsibility for ensuring that annual inspections are completed on time.
"Building owners pay ... taxes in part to ensure regulated inspection and safe operation of their elevator," Schilf said in a written statement.
The city's more focused efforts began June 4 on the Near West Side, where records indicate that about 88 percent of applicable devices have not had annual inspection in about the last year.
During the first week, 43 devices in the community area were inspected. Thirty-two "failed" for non-safety-related issues, and one was shut down until code violations endangering public safety could be fixed, a process known as "red-tagging,"
according to the city.
The Tribune last week also reported that the city-owned
was among the buildings that had not received an annual inspection. The city on Thursday said the center's elevators were inspected June 14 and 15, but they did not pass for "issues that are not related to public safety." The center is addressing those issues, and the elevators were not required to be shut down, the city said.
Three inspectors are now dedicated to performing the routine annual inspections and will focus first on community areas that have the highest concentration of elevators. Three more inspectors will perform other types of inspections and audits of their privatized inspection program, and will respond to
After completing the Near West Side, inspectors plan to focus next on Lakeview, Lincoln Park and West Town.
In those areas, records show that about 80 to 92 percent
of applicable devices have lapsed inspections.
The city also has expanded the reform program it launched in 2009, which required building owners in the Central Business District to hire private inspectors to complete the annual reviews.
The district is a swath of downtown bordered by the lake, Roosevelt Road, Halsted Street and Chicago Avenue to the west of LaSalle Street and Division Street east of LaSalle.
Building owners outside the district can now voluntarily enroll in the privatized Annual Inspection Certification program, which the city has touted as a success.
The rates of annual inspections in the Central Business District are far better than elsewhere in the city, but the Tribune reported last week that 1 in 4 buildings still were not checked in 2011 and that the program was marred by inconsistent record-keeping and lax enforcement. City officials have said they are working to streamline the inspection database.
It remains to be seen whether building owners outside the downtown area will voluntarily enroll in the program. The city announced last week that major hospitals and universities in Chicago have committed to enrolling this year, but some
property managers and other groups contacted by the Tribune gave the proposal mixed reviews.
Sheila Finkel is the property manager at a high-rise condo building at 3950 N. Lake Shore Drive, where she said an annual inspection had not been completed for years, until she recently called the city. The building has to make fixes and undergo another inspection. Finkel said that after learning that buildings can get private inspections, she plans to ask the condo board to enroll in the Annual Inspection Certification program.
"It would allow me to get an outside person in to inspect the elevators without waiting for the city," Finkel said. "If an elevator hasn't been inspected in several years, it can leave the building open to liability should there be an incident."
But Doug Hanrahan, senior property manager at Wirtz Realty Corp., was more skeptical about the city's offer to join the program. Hanrahan manages one building inside the Central Business District and nine outside the area. The certification program has worked well for his downtown building, but he was hesitant about signing up the other buildings.
"This is just another way of (the city) pushing responsibility from the city to the building owner," Hanrahan said.
Schilf said she would need more questions answered before she could back the city's privatized inspection process.
"We believe this pilot program and associated 'blitz' need careful analysis, ongoing input from building owners and financial scrutiny," Schilf said.