Chicago in ‘homestretch’ on fire-safety upgrades in residential high-rises

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Chicago is “in the homestretch” of its efforts to persuade owners of pre-1975 residential high-rises to make costly fire-safety improvements they have ignored for more than a decade, a top mayoral aide said Thursday.

Two years after City Hall threatened to throw the book at hundreds of recalcitrant building owners, Buildings Commissioner Judy Frydland said she is “close to the finish line” with just 77 active court cases and without levying a single fine.

The scorecard for an edict that stemmed from the 2003 fire at the Cook County administration that killed six people trapped in stairwells reads like this:

  • 716 residential high-rises citywide required to submit “life-safety evaluation” reports.
  • 315 of those buildings have achieved full compliance, 51 of them after having their court cases dismissed.
  • 83 in the process of installing sprinkler systems.
  • 77 court cases still alive.
  • 39 buildings pending approval with inspections scheduled through early April.
  • 200 buildings with approved life-safety plans awaiting inspection.
  • 2 buildings with no approved plans, but working with the city to come into compliance.

Former Buildings Commissioner Felicia Davis had threatened to file as many as 400 lawsuits against building owners she accused of “thumbing their noses” at the 2004 requirement to install sprinklers or make less costly improvements.

Frydland has charted a different course since taking the reins last spring. She has worked with building owners to help them comply before bringing the hammer down.

On Thursday, Frydland maintained that the kinder, gentler approach is working to make Chicago’s older high-rises safer for residents.

“This is not inexpensive work. It’s very expensive in many cases. A lot of the issue is not that people don’t want to do it. It’s that they have to get the money together to do it. They have to hire an architect to prepare the report, list the work, bid that all out, then get the money. Our approach was to be understanding of that and be available to answer questions,” she said.

“I’m very comfortable about where we are and the progress we’ve made. A condo building is a lot of single-family homeowners living under one roof. Every one of them has to come up with the money,” she said. “Unless you have a condo flush with a ton of money — and I don’t know how often that happens — you need a special assessment, or financing, or a combination of both. That takes time.”

Of the 200 buildings with approved life-safety plans, 30 have already scheduled inspections. The rest have until April 30 to avoid lawsuits, Frydland said, arguing that City Hall “can’t wait forever. I need to see something back from you.”

“We’re totally in the homestretch and close to the finish line. This year should be it. We only have a couple hundred left. Will we have some stragglers? Yes. But even the stragglers have made progress taking into consideration all of the complications and challenges,” she said. “Emergency recall buttons on elevators. Emergency back-up for electric generators. Two-way voice communication systems. Smoke and heat detection systems. Additional fire dampers. Separation [to contain fires]. Sprinkling garages. Things like that make a building a lot safer.”

In 2004, Chicago’s older commercial high-rises were given 12 years to install sprinklers. Residential buildings were given the option of making less-costly “life-safety” improvements, such as enclosing stairwells, by 2012.

It was a bitter disappointment to relatives of the six people who died in the Oct. 17, 2003, fire at the Cook County Administration Building at 69 W. Washington St. after being trapped in smoke-filled stairwells by doors that closed and locked behind them. The relatives wanted a sweeping sprinkler mandate with no exceptions and fewer delays.

In December 2011, Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) joined North Side Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) in co-sponsoring an ordinance that gave building owners three more years to make the improvements. At the time, they argued that struggling owners were having trouble footing the bill.

Two years later, Hairston said she had “no second thoughts” about spearheading the delay — not even after two people died in a fire at a 16-story building at 6730 S. South Shore Drive that was not equipped with a sprinkler system, hard-wired alarm or communications system to disable elevators and alert condominium owners.

Tunney had faced similar questions one year earlier after a 32-year-old woman died in a high-rise fire at 3130 N. Lake Shore Drive. Her neighbors had left the door to their burning 12th floor apartment propped open because their cat refused to leave.

Like the South Shore condo, that 21-story building was a pre-1975 high-rise that was not equipped with a sprinkler system, nor did it have hard-wired alarm or communications system to disable elevators and alert residents of the roughly 300 apartments.

Like Hairston, Tunney said at the time he had “no regrets” about pushing back the deadline for life-safety improvements.

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