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Parker Center a Regular City Code Violator

A city consultant says the police headquarters needs fire safety improvements, seismic retrofitting and other basic maintenance.

November 29, 2002|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

In the 14 years since Los Angeles first required fire sprinklers in high-rise buildings, its police headquarters has repeatedly been cited for failing to abide by that law, city records show.

The mayor and City Council have repeatedly put off paying for mandated improvements.

During the same period, the owners of more than 380 privately owned high-rise buildings have been forced to spend millions of dollars to install sprinklers and alarms, or to vacate portions of their buildings under threat of being fined.

No fines have been levied against the city General Services Department, which is responsible for maintaining the 47-year-old Parker Center.

"It's a double standard," said Mitzi Grasso, director of the union representing 9,000 LAPD officers. "We've been very angry regarding this issue. We feel our members deserve a safe working environment, and the city has neglected Parker Center."

Dick Welles, chairman-elect of the Building Owners and Managers Assn. of Greater Los Angeles, agreed. "If a requirement is good for the private sector, it should be good for government as well," he said.

One city consultant found that in addition to fire safety improvements, the center needs seismic retrofitting, roof repairs, plumbing repairs and other basic maintenance. The building has repeatedly been cited for boxes and other material placed in front of exits and in stairwells. It is a symptom of the fact that the department has outgrown the building.

After numerous citations for safety violations, city officials are only now beginning to seriously consider moving the 1,200 police employees out of the eight-story building and tearing it down.

Grasso credits the Los Angeles Police Commission for forcing the issue.

After taking care of other priorities including reforms in response to the Rampart scandal and hiring a new police chief, the panel headed by commission President Rick Caruso voted this week to begin efforts to vacate the structure.

"I can't understand how this has gone on this long," Caruso said. "The irony is you have people who you are asking to protect the public and you have housed them in one of the most dangerous buildings downtown."

Caruso blamed the problem on a lack of political will by city leaders.

"It never was important to anybody because you cannot garner any votes," he said.

However, Caruso said that Mayor James K. Hahn, who served for more than a decade as city attorney before winning election last year, has backed the commission in its efforts to find a replacement for Parker Center.

Deputy Mayor Matt Middlebrook confirmed that Hahn supports swift action.

"It's always just a matter of priorities. The city has had different priorities in recent years, from paving more streets to putting more police officers in the field," Middlebrook said. "But that facility has gotten so bad that we have come to a point where we need to act."

Caruso's agitating has ruffled the feathers of some council members who have asked for thoughtful study before going ahead with replacement of Parker Center because of its price tag of $150 million.

And one councilman, Nate Holden, says the city should focus on other priorities.

"I for one will not put a building in front of the need to provide additional police officers," he said earlier this week.

The building, opened in 1955, was named after former Police Chief William H. Parker, who died in 1966. It is home to the current police chief, much of the LAPD administration, as well as several specialized units, including the Robbery-Homicide Division detectives.

The City Council adopted a high-rise retrofit ordinance in 1988 after a fire that May in the first Interstate Bank skyscraper killed one person and injured 40 others.

The ordinance required buildings taller than 75 feet to install fire safety systems, including sprinklers.

The Fire Department first cited Parker Center for noncompliance with the retrofit ordinance on Nov. 10, 1990, records show.

City elected officials were reminded of the problem in 1996, when consultant Kosmont Associates issued a city-commissioned report that recommended the replacement of Parker Center, in part because of the fire safety violations.

The Fire Department issued other written citations and complaint letters over the years, including one in March 2000 in which 61 violations were cited, including several for boxes blocking exits.

"This building does not comply with the current fire and life safety codes ... in the state of California nor the city of Los Angeles," the citation adds. "It has no fire alarm system except in the property room in the basement. It also has no sprinkler system, again except in the property room in the basement."

The citation went on to castigate city officials for failing to address the problem of blocked exits.

"In addition to the above is the apparent and total disregard for the maintenance of clear and adequate exit corridors, aisleways, and stairwells for the escape of personnel to safety in case of an emergency," the citation said.

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