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Emanuel to file 400 lawsuits against older high-rises

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration is headed to court to force owners of 400 of Chicago’s pre-1975 residential high-rises to make fire safety improvements they have ignored for nine years, a top mayoral aide disclosed Monday.

Three months after warning that the Jan. 1 deadline was “not moving,” Buildings Commissioner Felicia Davis is making good on her threat to throw the book at recalcitrant building owners.

City Hall is in the final stages of documenting violations and conducting title searches in preparation for filing, no fewer than 400 lawsuits against building owners who have “thumbed their noses” at the delayed requirement, the commissioner said.

The ordinance requires buildings to submit life safety evaluation reports, complete construction and upgrades and pass inspection by Jan. 1.

“I’m disappointed that [so many] building owners didn’t take heed. They were not pro-active. I could not be part of pushing this deadline back any further. It’s been nine years in the making. I’m committed to making sure every single building . . . is fully compliant,” Davis said.

“Every element is about saving lives. Making sure that doors close automatically in the event of a fire and elevators are automatically recalled to the first-floor so no one can accidentally get up to a floor on fire. Making sure that fire communications systems are in place so the Fire Department can communicate between floors and give instructions. Buildings have had plenty of time. At this point, we have to make sure we’re doing everything in their absence to save lives.”

Since there are so many lawsuits to file, Davis said the cases will be “prioritized” with the “most egregious” buildings targeted first.

“Some buildings [owners] are not compliant, but have a record of inching their way toward compliance. There are other buildings [owners] that held their breath and hoped the deadline was going to be extended, and they were caught at the end not having done anything,” Davis said.

“We don’t have the resources to put 400 cases into the court system at one time. So we’re putting the highest-priority cases in first. The ones that have more or less thumbed their noses the whole way — the low-income properties and other commercial buildings at the front-end with owner-occupied condo buildings in the second wave.”

Davis said she has met with hundreds of property-management companies and condo boards in preparation for the long-awaited crackdown.

“We understand the financial difficulty. We’re trying to work with them,” she said.

“Renters may not even know this ordinance exists. They don’t know the landlord is putting them at risk. That’s the difference.”

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. 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.

Hairston subsequently 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 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.

Of the 732 pre-1975 high-rises covered by the life-safety requirements, 184 have now passed inspection. Another 78 buildings have filed letters of intent to “fully sprinkle” their buildings and now have until Jan.1, 2017 to do so, Davis said.

Another 55 buildings that had not submitted “life-safety evaluation reports” by August of last year were referred to court ahead of time. That leaves 400 new court cases to file.