CHICAGO (CBS) — Residents and owners of older high rises in Chicago were racing against the clock to fight a proposed state mandate that they say would force many residents to move.

WBBM Newsradio’s Lisa Fielding reports some said sprinklers are necessary to save lives and property in Chicago’s oldest tall buildings, but others said there have to be less costly options that are just as effective.

“If we have to retrofit sprinklers in our building, we’d be looking at a bill just for the work of around $9 million, which broken down would be enough to cause many people in my building – who are on fixed incomes and probably myself – to say we can’t afford $40,000, $50,000 in special assessments, said Allen Lipscher, president of Waterford Condominium Association on Lake Shore Drive.

Lipscher and hundreds of high rise condo owners have been fighting a proposed rule by the Illinois State Fire Marshal that imposes retrofitting requirements for high-rise buildings built before 1975.

Lipscher said the cost would be ruinous for many homeowners.

“This would be a giant project. We are a poured-concrete building. That would entail bringing in standpipes, drilling holes through the floor to bring in the main pipes,” he said. “We would have to have pipes run the center of our hallways hanging from our ceilings exposed. Over each door they would drill through the wall, and bring into your whole house and it won’t look pretty as a retrofit.”

“We just think to spend $9 million, especially when we’ve already spent money on all the other things, it’s something we can’t afford. If this law passes, many of us will have to sell and move,” he added.

It started in 2003, when a fire took the lives of six people trapped in a stairwell at the Cook County Administration Building at 69 W. Washington St.

In an effort to prevent further high-rise fire deaths, the City Council enacted the life-safety ordinance, which required all pre-1975 buildings 80 feet and higher to submit a professionally-prepared evaluation and to implement certain safety features by Jan. 1, 2012.

By late 2011, half of the residential high-rises had not submitted reports, much less implemented the safety features, so the City Council gave them more time, to Jan. 1, 2015.
Chicago’s ordinance gives high-rises a choice: retrofit for sprinklers or install alternative safety features, such as fire-resistant stairwell doors and frames, and one- and two-way voice communication systems.

Virtually none of the owners have opted for sprinklers.

Lipscher said The Waterford has already implemented much of the city’s Life Safety and High Rise Ordinance, and other safety measures as required.

“It’s a continuing process. We have fire people coming in all the time to make sure lights and fire stairs and doors are working. We will have elevators that have automatic recall, an enunciator system, fire doors in the trash chutes and many other safety improvements,” he said. “Now the addition of sprinkler systems is too much. The city is happy with what we are doing and with the progress we’ve made. They are watching it closely and at the end of 2014, all the buildings will be done and now this got thrown into the mix. The City doesn’t know what to do either.”

Lipscher urged building owners to write letters to the state’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, which will take up the proposal on Aug. 12.

Currently, Chicago requires sprinklers only in new residential high-rises. Many condominium associations and the Illinois Association of Realtors have come out against this new mandate for older buildings.

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