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‘No second thoughts’ about fire safety extension, alderman says

Leslie Hairston

Leslie Hairston

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Updated: February 25, 2013 12:36PM

A South Shore alderman whose ward includes a condo building where two people died said Wednesday she has “no second thoughts” about having spearheaded a move to give the owners of that building and other pre-1975 high-rises until 2015 to make fire safety improvements.

The 16-story building at 6730 S. South Shore Drive was not equipped with a sprinkler system. Nor did it have a hard-wired alarm or communications system to disable elevators and alert condominium owners.

It’s one of 759 pre-1975 residential high-rises exempt from the sprinkler requirement, but that were supposed to make other, less-costly “life safety improvements” by Jan. 1, 2012.

In December 2011, Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) joined North Side Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) in co-sponsoring an ordinance giving building owners three more years to make the improvements. At the time, they argued that struggling owners were having trouble footing the bill.

Hairston, whose ward includes the South Shore condo involved in this week’s fatal fire, said Wednesday she has “no second thoughts” about having championed the three-year reprieve.

“In this down economy, my constituents were asking for assistance. Every time something happened in the Loop, it filtered out into the community to people least able to afford it,” she said.

“You’ve got people losing their homes, [condo] associations that have been burdened with facade repairs and life-safety evaluations in addition to regular maintenance. Those costs are going up and the number of unit owners are going down as the people have had to walk away from their units. It’s very easy to have a mandate, but the question always is how do you pay for it?”

She added, “If we want to keep working people in the city, we have to work with them. Otherwise, there’ll be a bunch of abandoned buildings, no tax base and only the wealthy will be able to live here.”

Hairston said her “heart goes out” to the families of the two fire victims, adding, “It was very tragic what happened. Everybody wants safety. Nobody wants this to happen.”

Asked if she would consider moving up the deadline in the wake of the fatal fire, Hairston said, “I’m surely gonna look at it and talk to my constituents and Ald. Tunney. But, the condo associations are saying the same thing. You have a lot of units empty in that building because of foreclosure. Where does the money come from to pay for it?”

Just over a year ago, Tunney was facing the same questions after a 32-year-old woman died in a high-rise fire at 3130 N. Lake Shore Drive. Her neighbors had left the door to their burning 12th-floor apartment propped open because their cat refused to leave.

Like the South Shore condo, that 21-story building was a pre-1975 high-rise that was not equipped with a sprinkler system, nor did it have hard-wired alarm or communications system to disable elevators and alert residents of the roughly 300 apartments.

Like Hairston, Tunney said at the time he had “no regrets” about pushing back the deadline for life-safety improvements.

“I do regret the loss of life for sure,” he said then. “but, the extension is unrelated to this unfortunate tragedy. The important thing is this door did not close.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel was asked then whether he had any qualms about having given the older buildings a three-year respite.

“It’s not like a final exam [and] waiting `til the last hour of the last day to figure this out,” the mayor said then.

“You asked for that time. But, I don’t expect you to use the time all the way `til the end.”

Ald. Danny Solis (25th), chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards, said he plans to get recommendations from the Buildings and Fire Departments, then huddle with the mayor’s office, before determining whether to move up the timetable for older high-rise buildings.

“But, I want to emphasize I don’t think this fire really had anything to do with those life-safety issues in terms of what I’ve read about it up to now. But, it does get our attention. So, I’m gonna look at it,” Solis said.

After the second fatal fire in a year at a pre-1975 high-rise, Solis was asked whether he believes it was a mistake for the City Council to grant the three-year reprieve.

“There are a lot of condos out there that have been affected by the economy—do not have renters, do not have owners. If you press the same kind of regulations that we have in the downtown area where they can afford it, it may mean foreclosures. It may mean more devastation for some communities that really don’t need it,” he said.

“I’m not saying yes or no. I’m just saying it’s a hard question to answer.”

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