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Disaster Revives Sprinkler Debate : Safety: Law requiring high-rise retrofits would save lives, officials agree. But high costs could drive out many residents.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After every major residential high-rise fire in Los Angeles, the same question always arises: Why weren’t there fire sprinklers?

It happened after a major Wilshire Corridor condominium fire two years ago and again last year after a fatal high-rise fire in West Los Angeles. And Tuesday’s deadly fire in a Century City condominium tower, which was not equipped with sprinklers, has resurrected the question.

The Los Angeles City Fire Department said that if such existing high-rises were required to have sprinklers, the fire damage would have been less and lives possibly could have been saved.

But some city housing officials and building owners respond that requiring sprinklers could put thousands of poor and middle-income people out on the streets, the victims of skyrocketing rent increases caused by the retrofitting.

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In the middle stand those who live in at least 75 Los Angeles high-rise condominiums and apartment buildings that still lack sprinkler protection, which fire experts say can quickly contain and extinguish fires. Again the high-rise dwellers seem destined to witness the clash of city officials locking horns over the issues of public safety versus affordable housing.

“We’ve tried to resolve this. In good faith, we really have tried,” said Richard McCaughey, a city legislative analyst who spent the past few years specializing in fire safety issues for the City Council.

“But we have been caught in a never-never land--throw the people out on the street or allow them to live in risky situations,” McCaughey sighed. “A can of worms was opened when we got into this.”

Since the city began grappling with the sprinkler issue almost two decades ago, officials have never been able to reach a consensus. Lawmakers in Sacramento have faced the same problem, being buffeted by public safety proponents on the one hand and affordable housing agencies and lobbyists for apartment and condominium owners on the other.

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Efforts to enact statewide fire safety ordinances have failed. Los Angeles city officials have had more success, first requiring some sprinklers in the city’s single-room occupancy hotels in the wake of the devastating Dorothy Mae apartment building fire in 1982, in which 24 people were killed. In June, 1988, it adopted an ordinance requiring retrofitting of sprinklers in more than 350 older Los Angeles commercial high-rises. About half have not yet complied, according to city Fire Marshal Davis Parsons.

Since 1974, in fact, city ordinances have required all buildings over 75 feet high to have sprinklers. But the issue of retrofitting sprinklers in pre-1974 residential buildings remains as thorny as ever.

“It is frustrating knowing the technology exists to save lives,” Parsons said. “But there are concerns over the costs. . . . It is absolutely the most difficult public policy issue that we have had to deal with.”

Much, if not all of the costs, of retrofitting buildings would be passed along to tenants and condo owners. Many of the city’s high-rises, particularly the older ones between 7 and 13 stories, are inhabited by low- and moderate-income tenants who could not afford the estimated cost increases of as much as $528 a month for five years.

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But still, many tenants argued Tuesday that the sprinklers are needed.

As he walked back toward his still-smoldering building in a bathrobe in Tuesday’s early morning haze, commercial real estate broker John Alle said he hoped the fire would spur the city into action. “I’m hoping that this will finally encourage a sprinkler ordinance,” he said.

But there seems to be signs of progress, according to Parsons and others. The city formed a special task force to bring all parties together to examine the issue and come up with a report. That report was sent to the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, which drafted a proposed ordinance and earlier this year commissioned a study to determine the ordinance’s impact on renters and owners.

Ralph Esparza, director of the city’s Rent Stabilization Division, said he has asked that the study be expedited because of Tuesday’s fire. He said it could be ready within a month, allowing council debate on the ordinance to begin.

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The condominium tower damaged in Tuesday’s fire was one of several buildings examined by the the task force and city officials in preparing the proposed ordinance. City officials found that installing retrofitted sprinklers in the building at 2170 Century Park East would cost condominium owners as much as $528 a month for five years, or $26,782 per unit, Esparza said.

The fire killed two people, injured seven and forced the evacuation of 250 residents.

The blaze has prompted elected officials to reexamine the sprinkler issue. Councilman Marvin Braude, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said he wants to get the proposed ordinance moving through his committee “at the earliest possible time.”

“It seems to me that public safety is just so critical an issue that costs should not be considered,” Braude said. “But you do have to find a reasonable balance.”

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Fire Department officials are hopeful that city officials will soon adopt a residential sprinkler requirement for high-rises.

Asked when that might happen, Fire Marshal Parsons said, “I wouldn’t even want to hazard a guess right now.”


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