Buildings Near Deadline to Comply With City High-Rise Fire Ordinance

With two months to go until the deadline expires for compliance with Chicago’s high-rise fire ordinance, dozens of buildings have failed the city’s repeated attempts to bring them into compliance, and will be taken to court.

“This has been the biggest priority this year,” said Chicago Buildings Commissioner Felicia Davis, noting that she has reached out to condo boards, building owners and community meetings, to remind them of the December 31 deadline, which was nine years in the making. She met with aldermen and created lists so they would know the status of every building in their ward.

But it appears not everyone got the message.

“We’ve taken 43 buildings to court,” Davis said, “because those buildings haven’t given the basic element of providing a plan which is really the road map of how they were going to make those buildings safe.”

And there could be more.

The program began with a tragedy and has been fraught with controversy. In October of 2003, six people died in a smoke-filled stairwell in the County Administration building at 69 West Washington. After official inquiries revealed that a single sprinkler likely would have put the fire out in seconds, there was an immediate call for all high rises to be retrofitted with fire sprinklers.

But that prompted an immediate backlash from building owners and condo boards concerned about the cost.

Hearing that cry, the City Council backed down, and adopted a Life Safety ordinance, calling for a multi-point evaluation of high rise safety systems. No sprinklers were mandated, but other features, including two-way communication, automatic recall for elevators, and self-closing apartment doors.

Despite that seeming olive branch from the city, scores of buildings owners dragged their feet. Compliance was so lax, that as the original deadline approached January 1, 2012, the City had little choice but to extend it.

December 31 is that new deadline. And Davis says this time, the city’s patience has come to an end.

“This deadline is not moving,” she said. “Every building, without fail, that has not met this deadline, will be referred to court.”

While many building owners seemed to be tempting fate, and fines, in the face of the impending cutoff date, Davis expressed confidence that most would pass muster. Of 729 buildings that were required to file plans, 677 submitted reports which were accepted. After nine years, only 173 buildings have passed. But an additional 298 inspections are scheduled between now and the end of the year.

Many fire professionals said the Chicago ordinance did not go far enough, insisting that sprinklers offered the only true guarantee of safety. Indeed, in drafting the law, even the city agreed that buildings choosing to install fire sprinklers would not be subject to some of the other provisions of the code.

Eighty seven buildings chose to do just that, even though they were not required to do so.

“It was fairly unanimous among the board,” said Kevin Connellan, president of the condo board at 400 West Deming Place. “Everybody was in agreement that sprinklers were the way to go.

The building, known as the Marlborough, will spend an estimated $1.5 million to install fire sprinklers. Under the provisions of the ordinance, that work must be completed by the end of 2016.

“We absolutely think it’s worth it for the safety factor,” Connellan said.

While Davis said she expects the majority of buildings will have their work approved, she insisted that any who are incomplete at year’s end will be taken to court.

“December 31st, they have to have the work done,” she said. “There are families that live in these buildings, there are kids who live in these buildings, and they deserve to be safe.”

Check the status of your building here.

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