Life-safety improvements in works at five Elgin high-rises
By Mike Danahey firstname.lastname@example.org November 29, 2012 9:34PM
The Housing Authority of Elgin has big plans to update Central Park Tower, the affordable senior housing complex along Route 31. September 5, 2012 | Sun-Times Media~File Photo
Updated: January 1, 2013 6:08AM
ELGIN — The city’s fire department has been spending a lot of time this year working with the owners and property managers of five high-rises in Elgin to improve life-safety conditions in the buildings.
The department wants those changes to be made, or at least plans in place for them, by the first of the year.
According to documents obtained by The Courier-News through a Freedom of Information Act request, the structures are the Professional Building at 165 Division St., the Tower Building at 100 E. Chicago St., Buena Vista Tower at 222 Locust St., Westwind Tower at 104 S. State St. (Route 31), and Central Park Towers at 120 S. State St.
The first two buildings are downtown commercial spaces, and the latter three are low-income residential properties.
A ringed binder full of supporting material shows photos and information collected from inspections of those sites — and that issues include a lack of sprinkler systems in some of the buildings.
Fire Chief John Fahy and Fire Code Official Ron Sessions said city fire codes were updated during 2011, with those approved by the city council this fall. Related to that, the department earlier this year put together an action plan to address code compliance issues for the city’s tallest buildings.
A memo from Fahy to City Manager Sean Stegall updated Stegall on the progress of the project. The memo states the building overseers were contacted by mail in March, with a follow-up sent in September stating that legal action would be taken against those not complying with the codes.
While the document claims changes have to be made by Jan. 1, Fahy said the intention is for all to have plans related to fire and emergency safety in place and moving forward by that date.
Fahy and Sessions said that thus far, plans are progressing for the Professional Building and Buena Vista Tower, and those for the Westwind and Central Park towers — which are overseen by the Housing Authority of Elgin — are promised by the end of the year. The department is still waiting to hear from Tower Building representatives.
Buena Vista Tower was of utmost concern to the department, Fahy said, because of past fires, the fact that 200 or so people sleep there, and significant work needs to be done, particularly installing a sprinkler system.
A memo dated Oct. 29 from Jeffrey Rappin of Evergreen Real Estate Services LLC, which manages Buena Vista, states, “We are presently planning a major physical rehabilitation of the property. As the property is 100 percent Section 8 subsidized building and is considered low-income housing, we are going to utilize low-income housing tax credits provided by the Illinois Housing Development Authority to generate a substantial portion of the money needed to complete this rehab ... . One way or another, we will be commencing the renovation of Buena Vista Tower at some point during the first half of 2013 ... . Included in the Buena Vista rehabilitation will be all the life-safety measures you noted in your email as well as any others that might be recommended by Fire Safety Consultants Inc.”
An Oct. 11 email from Sessions to Rappin says that the plan for the Locust Street high-rise should include standpipe and fire pump testing; life and fire safety emergency plans; addressing the application of a fire sprinkler system and installation of an automatic fire alarm system; an emergency power supply for the building; addressing emergency evacuation standards; and meeting other established codes and standards.
Standpipes are built into tall buildings in a vertical position so fire hoses can be connected to them. The fire department has requested all five Elgin high-rises submit testing certification related to them.
According to a fire department memo, a February walk-through of Central Park Towers — which provides affordable housing to income-qualifying elderly — noted a working fire alarm system, a complete fire sprinkler system, a standpipe system and an emergency light system. The HAE intends to remodel Central Park Towers — a $20 million to $25 million project set to be funded with low-income housing tax credits, with work starting next fall.
The HAE also is in the process of securing funding for installing a sprinkler system at Westwind Tower, Sessions said. A fire department memo states that building has fire alarm and standpipe systems.
In the case of the Professional Building, Sessions said work has included setting up a modified system — adapted to its status as an historical building — that includes sprinklers on the first two floors and pull alarms; smoke and heat detectors; and an alarm horn on the floor that holds the banquet room, which has been used for arts and theater projects.
With its old, historical buildings, such fire safety projects are more common on the East Coast, Sessions said, and they can serve as a model for engineering systems for buildings here.
“A goal on buildings 50 or more years old is to protect those in them and the structures and to offer early warning,” Sessions said.
The Professional Building is owned by Chicago-based 164 Division LLC. Building manager Frank Halsey said he felt some of the department’s requirements went beyond what was necessary, particularly the sprinklers on the first two floors where an alarm system had already been installed. Still, Halsey said Sessions in particular had been easy to deal with, pointing out problems and offering solutions.
The Professional Building owners have spent $100,000 to $150,0000 making the moves requested by the fire department, Halsey said. And the owners are about 95 percent through with all types of renovations being made since they bought the building about seven years ago, he noted.
“The city has been quite helpful and has found us grants for some of the work,” Halsey said.
The Tower Building is overseen and owned by the nonprofit Stickling Foundation, which is headed by attorney Neal Pitcher.
In an interview for a story in early November, Pitcher told The Courier-News that “Even though the Tower Building was constructed using fireproof materials, the recent adoption of a new life-safety code has imposed new requirements upon the building for fire alarms, smoke detectors or a sprinkling system.
“We have been implementing some of these improvements over the last several years, and we are working with the city fire officials to prioritize those improvements that still have to be made.”
Sessions and Fahy said that the concern is not necessarily with building materials but with what is in the building that might catch fire.
To that end, issues being addressed at the Tower are to include replacing and properly latching a number of doors; providing a complete fire alarm system and exit lights at all doors and emergency lights at all corridors; clearing some areas being used for storage, including a coal bin in the basement; making sure the standpipe is working; installing sprinklers on the first three floors; and, by 2015, replacing one of the manually operated elevators with a fully automated one.