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High-Rise Tenants in Limbo

Hollywood: Since electrical fire forced closure, safety and blame issues remain.

August 15, 2002|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Time stands still inside the landmark Hollywood high-rise at the corner of Sunset and Vine.

Unfinished work is spread out on desks lined with computers, fax machines and family photos. Bookcases and file cabinets line office walls, beneath calendars turned to December and clocks with hands frozen at 1:35.

It's been that way at 6290 Sunset Blvd. since Dec. 6, when an electrical fire plunged the 20-story building into darkness and sent employees of 40 companies with offices there running for safety.

The office tower has remained padlocked ever since as disputes continue over who is to blame for the electrical problem and whether the building is safe to enter.

Caught in the middle are tenants who have been unable to remove their office equipment, files and personal belongings from the high-rise, which also housed two radio stations.

The tenants' situation turned desperate last week when it was learned that squatters had broken into the tower and were vandalizing some of the abandoned suites.

Protective fencing around the building, ordered by Los Angeles officials in hopes of keeping trespassers out, was being installed Wednesday. And the finger-pointing that has gone on for more than eight months continued.

"It's an unbelievable situation, an utter catastrophe," said Thomas Hunter Russell, an attorney who had offices in the tower for 26 years. "Nobody seems to give a damn about what's happening to people in that building. I've been a trial lawyer for 37 years, and I've never seen anything like this."

City building and fire officials have allowed workers to return briefly to their offices for important papers. But the elevators don't work, which means that equipment has to be carried down stairs.

Professional movers have quoted prices of up to $1,200 to remove a single copy machine from upper floors.

Russell said he paid a work crew $25,000 to tote legal files and computers from his 10th-floor offices. But thousands of dollars worth of other equipment and furnishings remain.

"I carried my own computer down 16 stories," said an executive of radio station KWKW-AM (1330). The station has moved to a temporary new location but is still waiting to get its studio equipment out of the tower, the manager said.

Tenants say their problems began when an underground electrical transformer next to the building's subterranean parking garage blew up and caught fire shortly after lunch on Dec. 6. The explosion knocked out power to elevators, and workers fled down stairwells.

The next day, city officials posted notices that the building was unsafe to enter.

Building owner Roy Mehdizadeh blames the city for the tenants' problem. He said the Department of Water and Power's transformer failed and then officials refused to reconnect power, "even for one elevator so people could get their computers and faxes out."

Mehdizadeh, whose family purchased the 39-year-old building in 1994, said he suspects that the transformer explosion, which he said was one of several last year in Hollywood, was caused by an electrical surge from the Kodak Theatre construction site at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue.

DWP officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday. But other city officials dismissed that scenario, and said the tower's closure was ordered because of safety concerns.

"We didn't want another fire to happen," said City Councilman Eric Garcetti, who represents that area.

"It was not a fit place for people to go into. We feel if the power was turned on, we'd risk another electrical fire. That building could go up, and perhaps people would lose their lives. That was unacceptable."

Before the blast, the city attorney's office had investigated complaints that the high-rise lacked fire sprinklers and had ordered their installation, Garcetti said. The electrical fire served to underscore the severity of the problem, he said.

Some tenants suggest that an improperly installed air conditioner in the office tower caused the transformer to short-circuit, a contention that Mehdizadeh denies.

Tenant Jerry Schneiderman, a real estate developer and community activist, said that months before the fire, he wrote city officials to warn that patrons of a nightclub on the top floor of the building would be at risk in case of fire.

Since being forced out of their offices, Schneiderman and other tenants have formed a group and filed a lawsuit against Mehdizadeh and his partners seeking reimbursement for their lockout.

Mehdizadeh, who said he is suing the city over the explosion, said the tenants' action threatens to block the sale of the building to a new owner who can reopen it.

The building is in escrow to the CIM real estate investment company for the reported price of $7.8 million.

On Wednesday, CIM principal Shaul Kuba confirmed the pending sale but declined to release the planned purchase price.

Neighboring business owners say they will be relieved when the building reopens.

"It's a ghost tower. The squatters have moved in and turned it into the world's biggest crack house," said Miki Jackson, who can see graffiti on the high-rise's windows from the nonprofit AIDS organization she runs on Vine Street.

City officials will be happy, too.

Fire Department representative Cal Muthleb was at the building this week to issue permits to tenants who want to be escorted inside. He said one tenant struggled for nearly an hour to move a table down the stairs.

"People come here with tears in their eyes," Muthleb said. "They say they're about to lose their homes because of this."

Instead of a moving crew, Muthleb said, "I tell them they need a lawyer."

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