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Builder Got Break on Safety Rules

Housing: City program relaxed some code requirements, but some inspectors say hazards existed. Top officials, developer deny risks.

July 07, 2002|GREG KRIKORIAN and PETER Y. HONG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A showcase effort to convert downtown office buildings into loft apartments skirted safety standards and exposed hundreds of tenants to potential fire hazards for nearly a year, according to veteran Los Angeles city fire and building inspectors.

City officials exempted the Old Bank District project from some building and fire code requirements that field inspectors said were crucial, records and interviews show. The exemptions allowed the $37-million development to fully open last year despite warnings by inspectors of potential dangers.

The hazards, the inspectors said, included stairwells that could fill with smoke in a fire, as well as a water-supply system for pipes and sprinklers that did not meet standards for a high-rise building.

Developer Tom Gilmore and the city officials who approved the 240-unit project said the complaints are groundless.

Gilmore's successful conversion of old offices on the fringes of skid row into apartments has drawn national attention, as well as millions of dollars in city funds and federally guaranteed loans. The project along 4th Street at Spring and Main streets is the first under a city program to promote downtown housing by easing building requirements.

"If you were to look at our correction notices ... you would swear we were criminals, when in fact, if you look at them substantively, you will see we are in fact--and have always been since the day we opened--some of the safest buildings in Los Angeles," Gilmore said.

David Keim, head of code enforcement for the city Department of Building and Safety, said Gilmore was freed from some code restrictions, but the allowances were either minor or were balanced by other safety measures.

"Had we thought there was any potential life-safety issue, the Fire Department and Building and Safety Department would not have approved any modifications," Keim said.

Fire Capt. Robert Holloway, who eventually oversaw fire code enforcement on the project, said the safety issues were never life-threatening.

But a group of veteran inspectors voiced criticism of the exemptions granted Gilmore. They have asked that their names not be printed because they say they fear retribution from their bosses, who gave Gilmore approval to start renting his apartments beginning in September 2000.

"If it were minor stuff that would not impact the welfare of people there, it wouldn't be an issue with us," said one senior building official. "But we are no longer assuring that buildings are being constructed to the standard they are supposed to be. And this is a good example."

The alleged fire hazards did not result in any tragedy. But inspectors who worked on the project said that might have been luck. Their job, they said, is to reduce the chance of death or injury, a responsibility that relies on a long checklist of fire and building safety standards. They said approval of Gilmore's buildings shows how those standards can be compromised.

Besides the exemptions from safety standards, they said, two inspectors left for other assignments after Gilmore complained that they were being too strict.

"There seems to be a pattern ... of seeking ways to provide influential developers like Gilmore with economic advantages at the expense of public and firefighter safety," said Mike McCosker, vice president of the United Firefighters of Los Angeles, the union that represents city firefighters.

The complaints by inspectors target both agencies that share responsibility for building safety in Los Angeles, the Fire Department and the Building and Safety Department.

Gilmore and officials from those two agencies disounted the significance of the code exemptions.

"We have got a lot of ... stupid stuff in these buildings in terms of overkill on the part of Building and Safety and the Fire Department," Gilmore said.

He said he felt so harassed by some of the field inspectors that he asked top fire and building officials to replace them. Inspectors cited the city's response as an example of special treatment.

Gilmore was especially critical of veteran fire inspector Monte Buckner, whom the developer described as a "cowboy."

"Nobody building anything new wants this guy on their job," Gilmore said, adding that the inspector is "famous for spending just insane amounts of time and energy on everybody's part to the detriment of the project and without any fundamental improvement in life safety."

Buckner rejected those claims, saying they show Gilmore's "lack of knowledge of fire-safety issues."

"I spent numerous inspection hours out there, because there were a lot of life-safety issues. And during the reinspections, the corrections were not completed," Buckner said.

Capt. Holloway also rejected Gilmore's criticism of Buckner. "I reviewed the items [cited by Buckner], and there is not one thing that is not code-based or is vindictive," he said.

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