Helipad Rule Change May Bring San Diego Skyline a New Peak or Two

Times Staff Writer

It’s not by chance that points, peaks, cones and pyramids are missing elements in San Diego’s downtown skyline--which is characterized instead by a chain of boxy, flattop high-rise buildings.

While in the last few years pinnacles of concrete and steel have angled to the heavens in other booming cities, San Diego has remained uniform and stubby, like a neatly mowed lawn. To critics, the city’s buildings reflect function, not inspiration.

It was enough to cause visiting Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger of the New York Times to say, “There’s a continuous absence of any real, significant downtown architecture here. It’s dismal. . . . The office towers would be a source of embarrassment even in Dallas and Houston.”


But change appears imminent. The leading obstacle to a varied skyline--a stringent helicopter pad ordinance--has been revised and awaits only the approval of the City Council.

The proposed change, the subject of wide acclaim from local architects, will give builders and designers the option of doing away with flattops and instead constructing smoke-proof stairway enclosures.

“From an architectural and urban design standpoint, this will undoubtedly help change a skyline that is now lacking,” said Joseph Martinez, an architect and instructor at San Diego’s New School of Architecture. “This should give designers the opportunity to do signature buildings for San Diego. Look at all the towers in Chicago and New York. They work. There’s no reason they won’t work here.”

Referring to the helicopter pad ordinance, Martinez said, “I think San Diego has a tendency on occasion to overreact, and this is one.”

The impetus behind San Diego’s helicopter pad ordinance was the deadly fire at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on Nov. 21, 1980, which killed 85 people. Of the 4,000 to 6,000 people who were evacuated, about 350 of them were lifted off the roof by helicopters.

In the fire’s aftermath, cities across the nation adopted laws requiring new buildings 75-feet and higher to incorporate rooftop helicopter pads into their design. The idea was that in case of a fire, helicopters could not only evacuate people but ferry firefighters to the scene.


Ironically, the fire department which fought the MGM Grand blaze helped push through a variety of new fire safety codes and regulations but helicopter pads were not among them. “We didn’t feel that was the answer to fires in high-rise buildings,” said Clark County (Nev.) Deputy Chief John Papageorge.

“At the MGM, about 350 people were rescued from the roof but that was only because we had about 30 helicopters available, which was very unusual,” Papageorge explained. About 20 of the helicopters came from a Florida National Guard unit that was on its way to a training exercise in Nevada when it noticed the smoke and commotion around the hotel and turned around to help.

Papageorge said Nevada’s new fire-safety codes for building focused on things such as automatic sprinkler systems, mandatory smoke detectors, new paging systems, smoke-proof stairways and special elevator safety controls that could transport people to fire-free floors.

The proposed revision to San Diego’s helicopter pad ordinance reflects the belief that “there are other good ways to get people out of a building,” said Mike Stepner, the city’s assistant planning director and one of the leading proponents of the change, which has been formally drafted. “You can only get a few people off (by helicopter) at one time.”

The alternative smoke-proof stairway means “hundreds of people at a time” can be evacuated, Stepner said. The smoke-proof stairway--many of which already exist in downtown buildings--actually consists of two stairwells and two doors.

It works like this: a person opens a door and enters a vestibule, an air space similar to the passage between passenger cars of a train. Smoke entering the vestibule is either naturally or mechanically vented to the outside. The second door leads to the stairway, which in a fire should remain smoke free.


San Diego Fire Capt. Sam Oates, who works in the department’s fire prevention unit and evaluates high-rise construction plans, says the protected stairway is not a hazard and, in many ways, helps firefighters battle a blaze by shielding them from smoke.

“Does it impact firefighting? No,” Oates said.

Although revision of the helicopter pad ordinance is not scheduled to go to the City Council until October as part of a wide-ranging adoption of the 1985 Uniform Building Code, Oates said his unit will allow waivers to the ordinance now if designs include the smoke-proof stairway.

Stepner said the impetus behind the revision is the concern raised by architects, some city officials and developers that downtown redevelopment has followed a bland pattern of buildings “with flat roofs . . . and these are not the best looking buildings.” The proposed smoke-proof stairway alternative has the approval of the planning, fire and building inspection departments.

Architects and developers generally reacted with enthusiasm to the proposed change. “I think this will bring in a lot more beauty to San Diego. It gives architects and developers much more flexibility,” said C.W. Kim, a San Diego architect who was the director of design for the Hotel Inter-Continental and the First National Bank building downtown.

Kim said he is designing a 22-story mixed residential and commercial building across from the Inter-Continental for Los Angeles developer Neil Senturia. The proposed building, at 3rd Avenue and J Street, includes a pointed tower.

Even though architects are paying more attention to the top and the pedestrian level of buildings, Kim and other designers say the revised ordinance is no guarantee of a new wave of buildings.


One of the main reasons is the expense of smoke-proof stairways. Because of their added size, the stairways cost more and take up space that otherwise could be used for rentable office space.

“It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s not always an economic advantage to use that kind of design,” said Hal Sadler, president of Tucker Sadler & Associates, which designed several downtown high-rise office buildings, including California First Bank, Security Pacific Bank, Bank of America and the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center.

Sadler applauded the proposed revision, saying, “I think it’s going to be good for the city and the skyline.”

But as restrictive as the helicopter ordinance has been, both Sadler and Kim said the plethora of box-like buildings--which San Diego does not monopolize--was also the result of an architectural trend toward functionalism.

Now that trend is changing, as architects and developers look to more sculpted buildings as embodied by structures such as the Empire State building and other so-called wedding cake designs.

How soon this new trend will become apparent in downtown San Diego is not clear. Three of the major high-rises scheduled for construction in the next several years will include helicopter pads, though in some cases the very smallest one legally allowable. These projects include the Koll complex on Broadway, the Cabot, Cabot and Forbes high-rise on Columbia Street across from the Santa Fe depot and the Symphony Towers development on B Street.


“If we were doing it (design) now, it is probably something we would look at. We obviously would not like to have a helipad,” said Craig Millen, an official with Charlton Raynd Development Co. of San Diego, the firm behind the 33-story Symphony Towers project, which is due to break ground in late July or August.

Not all developers, however, embrace the change. Walter Smyk, developer of the Meridian condominium project downtown, the city’s tallest building, feels the requirement of a rooftop helicopter pad shouldn’t be abandoned in the name of architectural diversity.

“I think this is something pushed by architects who think they are going to design Chrysler buildings in this town,” Smyk said. “Look, 99 out of 100 buildings built anywhere, not just here, have flat roofs.”

Smyk’s 28-story building with 172 luxury condominiums has both a helicopter pad and a smoke-proof stairway. “I feel very strongly that we should have the helicopter ordinance. I think the architects just want more freedom of design.”