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Dispute Flares Over High-Rise Sprinklers : Safety: Condominium residents argue that expense of retrofitting is not justified. Fire officials, citing 1974 law, refuse to make an exception.

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When it opened in 1965, the Verdugo Towers high-rise condominiums brought a style of living previously uncommon here. But today, many who live there say they are fearful of becoming homeless.

The 11-story, 51-unit building at 1155 N. Brand Blvd., which boasts a third-floor swimming pool and three penthouse apartments, has become the focus of a debate over a city law requiring older high-rises to be retrofitted with fire sprinklers. The building’s roughly 100 residents, many of whom are 80 or older, say they cannot pay the estimated $1-million cost of installing the safety devices.

“How can the city force us to do this? It’s not fair,” said Hamlet Nanadjanians, 80, treasurer of the Verdugo Towers Homeowners Assn. “Most of the people living here are on fixed incomes. They would have to mortgage their homes. They cannot afford to do that--they would lose everything.”

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Of the 29 high-rises covered by the 1988 law, Verdugo Towers is the only residential structure. Fire Department officials say sprinklers have been installed in nearly all the other affected buildings and they have refused to back away from their recommendation that Verdugo Towers do the same.

In 1993, the city’s Building Commission unanimously rejected the homeowners’ request for a variance exempting them from the law. The following year, one homeowner challenged the ordinance’s constitutionality in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, but the lawsuit was dismissed and the homeowner has since died.

To demonstrate how costly sprinklers would be, Verdugo Towers homeowners say they have obtained more than a dozen contractors’ estimates for the installation. The cost to each owner is now estimated at $20,000 to $40,000, depending on the size of the unit.

“While a few of the homeowners may be able to afford such a substantial blow, in these times of economic hardship, the majority cannot,” said Jonathan Goldsmith, president of the homeowners association. “Some would be forced to file for bankruptcy.”

Another concern is the Fire Department’s proposal that all asbestos in the building be removed while the sprinklers are installed. For safety reasons, the homeowners say the building would have to be vacated for up to six months while the work is done.

After years of behind-the-scenes talks with city officials, the homeowners’ pleas were heard publicly this week by the City Council. Council members were clearly uncomfortable with the choice of either ignoring a law designed to increase fire safety or being accused of forcing seniors into financial straits.

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After an arduous, three-hour hearing, the council tabled the matter for 90 days and asked city staffers to come up with plans for a lower-cost “backbone” sprinkler system for the building’s hallways, which would not require the removal of asbestos.

That would meet the ordinance’s minimum standards and impose less of a financial burden on the owners. The council also asked its staff to explore ways to help the homeowners finance the project.

“I can’t see anyone, whether you have money or not, that would be willing to spend $40,000 on a unit that’s marketing for $100,000 or $110,000. It just doesn’t make sense,” said Councilman Larry Zarian.

But the homeowners say that even if the bill were cut in half, it would still be unaffordable. Furthermore, they insist that their building--which is located next to a fire station--includes many fire-safety features that make sprinklers unnecessary.

Each unit is encapsulated in concrete and steel; standpipes, fire hoses and alarms are on each floor; a master alarm system monitors the building; and every unit has a balcony or terrace on the outside, with a water spigot.

But Glendale Fire Department officials have steadfastly maintained that there is no substitute for sprinklers.

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“I understand the concerns of the residents, but that particular structure is at risk to fire, and potentially a catastrophic fire,” said Fire Chief Richard Hinz. “We’ve heard it said that they’re fire-resistant and fireproof. But there’s no such thing.”

Glendale’s sprinkler ordinance is one of the strictest in the nation. Its retroactive clause affects all low-, medium- and high-rise structures built before 1974, when the city began requiring sprinklers in all construction more than three stories high.

Existing buildings less than four stories, including single-family homes in areas of high fire risk, were exempted from the law because of potential financial hardship on owners. Exemptions are also allowed when other fire-extinguishing systems have been approved.

But many cities, including Los Angeles and Pasadena, have also exempted existing condominiums from complying with new fire-sprinkler laws because of the expense to homeowners, said Glenn Rosten, an official with the Greater Los Angeles Condominium Assn. Rosten, a consultant to the Verdugo Towers homeowners, has successfully fought similar sprinkler retrofitting legislation elsewhere.

Rosten contends that sprinklers “save lives, they don’t save property,” and he believes the homeowners should be allowed to make their own decision.

“These people are not children, they’re not stupid,” Rosten said. “They care a great deal about their personal safety, and they are vehemently opposed to mandatory retrofitting.”

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