Committee OKs new cooling requirements on high-rise, senior buildings to prevent repeat of heat-related deaths in Rogers Park

The ordinance, backed by Ald. Maria Hadden, is aimed at preventing a repeat of the tragedy at James Sneider Apartments, where three residents died in mid-May.

SHARE Committee OKs new cooling requirements on high-rise, senior buildings to prevent repeat of heat-related deaths in Rogers Park
The James Sneider Apartments at 7450 N. Rogers Ave. in Rogers Park.

The James Sneider Apartments, 7450 N. Rogers Ave. in Rogers Park., where three residents were found dead during a heat wave last month.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

With temperatures topping the 100-degree mark for the second straight week, a City Council committee moved Tuesday to impose new cooling requirements on residential high-rises and senior citizen buildings.

The ordinance, championed by Ald. Maria Hadden (49th), was approved by the Zoning Committee. It’s aimed at preventing a repeat of the tragedy at James Sneider Apartments, 7450 N. Rogers Ave. in Rogers Park.

That’s the senior building where three residents — Janice Reed, 68; Gwendolyn Osborne, 72, and Delores McNeely, 76 — died in mid-May amid another heat wave. 

Hadden has told the Sun-Times a building manager cited the city’s heat ordinance in responding to complaints about the heat and questions about why the air conditioning hadn’t been turned on before the three women died.

The ordinance approved Tuesday and teed up for full Council approval on Wednesday is intended to strike the balance between protecting Chicago’s “most vulnerable” residents and confronting what Buildings Commissioner Matthew Beaudet called the “technical limitations” of the “two-pipe heating and cooling system” in many large buildings.

Those buildings have “supply pipes that can either provide hot water or heating and cold water for cooling, but not both” heating and cooling at the same time, the commissioner said.

“Attempting to provide hot water to a chiller or cold water to a boiler will break the system. The proper switching of the system between heat mode and cooling mode and vice-versa can take one or two days to complete. Thus, it is critical to us to devise a system that acknowledges the limitations of building systems and design a solution to protect residents,” Beaudet said. 

The new requirements would:

• Expressly state that the ordinance does not prohibit engagement of the cooling system as long as the required minimum temperatures are maintained.

• Require large buildings without central cooling and all “55-plus” senior living facilities to establish “cooling centers in an enclosed common gathering area accessible to all residents free of charge” whenever the heat index is 80 degrees or higher.

“In most instances, these will be the lounges or the meeting areas in these buildings,” Beaudet said.

• Immediately mandate “temporary cooling systems, such as plug-in window- or portable air-conditioning,” and require, what Beaudet called “a separate permanent cooling system independent of the two-pipe system,” to be installed by May 1, 2024. 

The extended deadline for the permanent system would “provide appropriate time to budget funding for materials and labor” at a time of chronic materials, supply chain and employee shortages, the commissioner said. 

• Mandate permanent cooling systems in all new construction for residential, institutional and pre-K through 12 buildings. That simply “codifies existing industry practice, as people are not building new construction without air-conditioning,” Beaudet said.

Alderperson Brian Hopkins (2nd) initially threatened to delay Tuesday’s committee vote for further study amid concern about the mandatory heat requirements in May and September. 

That section would have allowed for a lesser minimum heating temperature of 64 degrees at the beginning and end of the heat season — until the outdoor temperature first falls below 45 degrees or exceeds 75 degrees Fahrenheit. 

“Nobody freezes to death in May in Chicago. That’s not a risk,” Hopkins said.

“Unlike the other provisions of Ald. Hadden’s ordinance that are definitely relevant to today when we have a heat wave going on, that one section is certainly not an urgent pressing matter. If we could pull that one section out, that’s the only objection that I have to the entire ordinance.”

Hopkins argued it “makes no sense to mandate a one-size-fits-all” solution at dual-pipe buildings. He knows, having lived in two such buildings.

“One side of the building gets more sun than the others, so it’s hotter. Some of the higher floors get more sun because of a shadow from the building next door. All of these little variances are actually relevant on a micro level,” he said.

At the very end of a three-hour meeting with other business sandwiched in between, Hadden agreed to strike that provision and “continuing working on the heating portion.” 

She thanked her colleagues for “acting on the urgent part” of her ordinance immediately.

Hopkins wasn’t the only alderperson with concerns about the ordinance. 

Ald. Felix Cardona Jr. (31st) argued that air-conditioned lounges and meeting rooms in the lobby or on lower floors do nothing to protect seniors who are “immobile.”

“I can’t see them going to common areas. We have to do better than this,” said Cardona, who has three senior buildings in his ward.

Housing Committee Chairman Harry Osterman (48th) pointed to the sweltering temperatures outside as evidence that alderpersons “don’t have the luxury of moving at a glacial pace.”

“There’s a lot of older Chicagoans ... their health and safety is critical. We have to look out for their interests,” Osterman said.

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