Before a packed chamber of angry and emotional residents of high-rise buildings, the Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday unanimously rejected an ordinance that would have required retrofitting more than 60 of the city's older residential high-rises with automatic fire sprinklers.
The 14-0 vote ended a tortuous five-year struggle during which support for the sprinklers gradually waned as the costs of retrofitting became known. In lieu of the sprinkler mandate, the council unanimously approved portions of a Housing Department report calling for high-rise residents to keep fire extinguishers inside their units and providing the Fire Department with greater authority to enforce fire safety regulations, among other items.
"I feel a weight off my shoulders," said Si Silverman, 70, a 13-year resident of a Hollywood Boulevard high-rise. "This would have put us out on the street. Where would I get that kind of money?"
In fact, concerns about cost overwhelmingly dominated the arguments against the ordinance as resident after resident told the council about the economic burden they would face under a retrofit ordinance.
One study commissioned last year by the city found the cost of retrofitting some of the pre-1974 high-rise units could be as high as $792 per month over a five-year period, or nearly $50,000 per unit. The study also found that more than half of the residents who would be affected by a retrofit ordinance are older than 62, with many on fixed incomes.
"It's crippling," said Barbara Zeidman, the housing department's assistant general manager. "These people don't have the ability to absorb that amount of mortgage debt or rent increases. They would have to move." Zeidman cited the costs of retrofitting the 10,000 units in the Park LaBrea complex, which she said would cost approximately $30 million. "It would kill these buildings," she said.
However, Los Angeles Assistant Fire Chief Dal Howard defended the ordinance, calling automatic fire sprinklers "the most reliable form of fire protection" currently available. "It was a public policy decision and they made their choice," Howard said after the vote. "These buildings, absent fire sprinklers, still remain relatively unsafe."
The move to retrofit the city's high-rises began in the wake of the 1988 First Interstate fire, which resulted in one death and 40 injuries. Shortly afterward, the city adopted an ordinance requiring that automatic sprinklers be retrofitted in high-rise commercial buildings. In 1990, the city fire marshal proposed extending the retrofit requirement to residential high-rise structures.
But opponents have defended the safety of their high-rises, citing statistics from last year's study that showed that rates of injury and death were considerably higher in single-family homes and low-rise buildings than in high-rises. Glenn Rosten, vice president of the Greater Los Angeles Condominium Assn., which has led the fight against the sprinkler ordinance, estimated the odds of dying in a high-rise fire are 200 times greater than in a low-rise building.
Though the overwhelming majority of the city's high-rises are located in West Los Angeles, opponents of the ordinance also decried the notion that the residents are affluent and would be able to bear the expense of the sprinklers. Many residents, they said, live in rent-controlled apartments and would be unable to pay the likely assessments necessary to purchase sprinklers.
"I am a disabled woman and I would lose my home," said a relieved Nina Diamante-Vera, who has lived in a high-rise condominium near the Beverly Center for 11 years. "There was no way on earth I could have paid this."