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All Fired Up : Condo Residents Say City Law Requiring Sprinklers Poses Undue Hardship

March 25, 1993|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GLENDALE — When Douglas Morrow and his wife sold their Beverly Hills home and moved to a condominium penthouse in Glendale 13 years ago, they thought they had picked the perfect retirement nest--a state-of-the-art, fire-resistant unit with a wrap-around terrace and spectacular views of the Verdugo Mountains.

Then the Morrows, and more than 90 other residents of the 11-story Verdugo Towers at 1155 N. Brand Blvd., were notified by the Glendale Fire Department that they must retrofit the entire building with fire sprinklers. Under a city law adopted in 1989, residents have until July 20 to comply, or face criminal penalties and possibly jail.

The job could cost up to $1 million and require removal of asbestos from the 28-year-old building, which means the residents may be forced to move out--possibly for six months to a year--while the work is done. Most say they cannot afford the expense and that even the thought of having to pack up and move panics them.

"We are all literally sick over this whole thing," said Morrow, 80, an Academy Award-winning screenwriter who said residents are living a nightmare suitable for a made-for-TV movie. "People are frightened. It is a terrible, terrible thing the city is doing to us."

Hamlet Nanadjanians, treasurer of the condominium homeowners association, said most residents are elderly and live on fixed incomes--supplemented only by interest earnings on life savings, payments that have steadily dwindled with the recession. He said many fear they will lose their homes if they have to pay the estimated $10,000 to $20,000 per unit to install the sprinklers.

Scott Alberts, 32, a business manager and the youngest and newest resident at the towers, where he purchased a one-bedroom unit 10 months ago, charged the city requirement "is not fair, not equitable. I am completely against the concept that the city can make a law that is retroactive that is going to affect people the way this is going to affect people."

The plight of the Verdugo Towers residents has rekindled a smoldering debate over the merits of installing sprinklers in older buildings. State and municipal codes adopted since the 1970s require such systems in all new high-rise construction, but it is only recently that the debate has focused on mandatory installation in high-rise condominiums built before the newer laws.

The Greater Los Angeles Condominium Assn., an umbrella organization of 28 high-rise residential complexes, mostly in downtown Los Angeles and the West Side, has argued for years that the costs to retrofit older buildings far exceed any expected benefits, said Glenn Rosten, association vice president.

His organization has successfully blocked proposed legislation at the state level and in Los Angeles that would require the retrofitting of sprinklers in older condominium towers. Rosten said an independent study by experts, expected to be presented to the Los Angeles City Council within a few weeks, disputes arguments by fire officials that sprinklers are crucial to saving lives and property.

Rosten said the report concludes that residents are six times more likely to lose their lives in a single-family or low-rise fire than in a high-rise.

"Every time there is a fire in a high-rise building, you get somebody in every city who has a knee-jerk reaction," he said. "It is a shame cities tend to adopt laws without looking into the ramifications."

Fire officials, however, point to other studies that have found sprinklers to be the single most important tool in firefighting.

"Fire history has proven that fire sprinklers are the only effective means to suppress a fire in its incipient phases," said Glendale Assistant Fire Chief Chris Gray. "They save lives. There is no doubt about that."

Because of the merits of sprinklers, many cities have adopted laws requiring retrofitting of older buildings. But often, as in Los Angeles and Pasadena, the rules apply only to commercial buildings, hotels and apartments and exempt condominiums because of the hardships imposed on limited owners.

Glendale's 1989 law is one of the strictest, affecting all low-, medium- and high-rise structures built before 1974, when the city began requiring sprinklers in all new construction four stories high and taller. The retroactive ordinance affects all older buildings--including commercial offices, condominiums and apartments. A total of 29 structures are affected by the retroactive clause, 10 of which already have been brought into compliance, said David Woods, assistant fire marshal.

The ordinance sets three deadlines for compliance, depending on the height of buildings. Only four buildings in Glendale are required to meet the first deadline in July, affecting older buildings seven stories and higher. Verdugo Towers is the only residential building of the four.

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