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Barrington Plaza fire spurs lawsuit and calls at City Hall for reform

Firefighters carrying hoses on their way to fight a blaze at Barrington Plaza on Wilshire Boulevard on the city's Westside.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Hundreds of residents of a Westside high-rise remained out of their homes Thursday, the day after a fire erupted in the 25-story apartment building, injuring 13 people and raising questions about safety in some of the city’s biggest housing complexes.

Firefighters and managers of the Barrington Plaza apartments on Wilshire Boulevard told tenants they could return to their units only briefly to secure medicines and medical devices. The timing remained uncertain for the permanent reopening of the 270-unit Building A in the sprawling, three-tower development.

Some residents said they were still shaken a day after Wednesday morning’s fire, which sent some tenants scrambling to the roof, where they were rescued by helicopter.

One tenant filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court, charging that Douglas Emmett Inc., the company that owns the building, had been negligent in failing to install sprinklers and make other fire safety improvements.

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“For years, tenants of Barrington Plaza Apartments have pleaded, warned and fought with Douglas Emmett ... about a seemingly straightforward issue: Barrington Plaza is unacceptably, illegally and fatally unsafe from fires,” the lawsuit contends. It added that the Santa Monica company “continues to sit on its hands” despite years of lawsuits, regulatory concerns and tenant complaints.

The lawsuit was brought by two law firms on behalf of resident Charles Agozino and asks the court to allow a class action, because it says the issues being raised are “of a common or general interest.”

Douglas Emmett did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit or on when the building would reopen.

Los Angeles police and firefighters said they had no new information on the cause of the fire, which spread quickly through the sixth and seventh floors after it began about 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.

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Residents and Los Angeles officials said they were particularly disturbed because the same building caught fire in October 2013, leading to another mass evacuation and severe injuries to several residents. The complex also suffered another large fire and evacuation on New Year’s Day in 1971.

Councilman Mike Bonin said he would bring forward a measure Friday to require sprinkler systems in all residential high-rises in Los Angeles.

Sprinklers are required in most apartment buildings, but an exemption has made an exception for high-rises built between 1943 and 1974. The city’s Fire Prevention Bureau has identified 55 buildings from that era that do not have sprinklers, including Barrington Plaza, which opened in 1963.

Mayor Eric Garcetti on Thursday signaled that he would like to find a way to have sprinklers installed in the high-rises.

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“This loophole is a dangerous one,” Garcetti said. He said the city should meet with building owners, as it did with an earthquake safety retrofitting measure, and “figure out a way that this can be done.”

“Fires happen much more than earthquakes in this town and we dodged a bullet. There could have been a lot of lives lost yesterday,” Garcetti said. He pledged to “dig into” the city code “to maybe close that loophole and figure out a way for that to be achievable for building owners and residents too.”

Gavyn Straus, a 27-year-old personal trainer who lives on the 21st floor of the damaged high-rise, said he tried to return to his unit Thursday but was turned away by Barrington Plaza employees and firefighters.

“I’m stressed. I’m out of whack,” Straus said. “I am just trying to stay grounded and be patient and calm. I am trying to make the best of it — pretend this is a little vacation or something.”


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