The downtown streets of Los Angeles these days are teeming with restaurants, music clubs, boutique hotels, sparkling new buildings and people, lots of people – swirling evidence of a transformation in a part of town that has always seemed something of an urban afterthought.
Just don’t look up. No matter how interesting city life has become out on the streets, the Los Angeles skyline remains an uninspiring procession of flattop buildings, a consequence of a 40-year-old Fire Department regulation that every skyscraper be topped by a helipad to allow for emergency rescues.
That is about to change. The Fire Department agreed last month to drop the regulation, which it had long contended was critical for public safety. In doing so, it is deferring to architects, elected officials and downtown champions who view the rule, known as Regulation 10, as superfluous at a time of advancement in fire safety technology and – worse – as a self-imposed prescription for architectural mediocrity in downtown Los Angeles at the very time that it is trying to show off for the nation.
“It’s an example of self-censorship,” said Michael Woo, dean of the College of Environmental Design at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. “Architects have not been able to think about creative ways to use the tops of buildings.”
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Woo said that although some people “dismiss it as only an aesthetic concern,” it was more than that.
“That skyline is really crucial to the identity of the city,” he said. “People outside of here don’t realize this has been going on for 40 years – architects adjusted to it.”
In all that time, only once has a helicopter been used to pluck people from the top of a building on fire, Los Angeles officials said: Five people were rescued from the top of the 62-story First Interstate Bank Building as it burned on May 4, 1988.
“And those individuals were lifted off the roof by LAPD helicopters that were already orbiting in the area” rather than by the Fire Department, said Ralph Terrazas, the city’s fire chief, in a letter he sent to the City Council explaining the regulation change.
What’s more, Terrazas said, current Fire Department procedures would instruct people trapped in a burning building to “shelter in place” and not head for the roof.
The rule change, which took effect immediately, has architects and city leaders dreaming of buildings featuring graceful spires evocative of the Chrysler Building in New York, glistening in the night sky or topped with sky-high parks and gardens. Los Angeles is the only major city in the United States that had a regulation for flattop buildings.
“One more stupid rule in Los Angeles,” said Eric Garcetti, the mayor, in announcing its repeal.
Under the new regulations, developers of buildings more than 75 feet will be able to do what they want with their roofs, provided they incorporate other firefighting design features: a dedicated high-speed elevator for firefighters, a third stairway for escapes and video systems outside every new elevator.
It was those improvements in technology that prompted the Los Angeles Fire Department to agree to drop Regulation 10, said John Vidovich, an assistant chief and fire marshal with the department. A Fire Department commission spent two years studying the policy, Vidovich said, and reached its conclusion after visiting other cities and reviewing the fire safety measures included in new buildings – not to mention the skylines of places like New York and Chicago.
“It was 40 years since we had the 1974 ordinance enacted for helipads,” he said. “As we started looking around, we started finding all these advances in fire technology.”
But this was more than just a simple change in a building code. Los Angeles has long suffered from outsiders’ sneers at the city’s urban credentials, so what has taken place in downtown Los Angeles – or DTLA, as it is commonly called by those who live there – has helped chip away at a municipal inferiority complex. To the dreamers who envisioned a new downtown, Regulation 10 represented institutional resistance.
“The helipad regulation has hindered LA from having an iconic, memorable skyline in a city that desperately needs a stronger urban identity,” said Brigham Yen, a downtown real estate agent who writes a blog, DTLA Rising. “Downtown LA now has the opportunity to design visually stunning high-rises with spires that will strengthen its position as an urban center.”
Brenda A. Levin, a Los Angeles architect who has overseen renovations of some of the city’s most historic buildings, said that the restrictions had served only to encourage “mundane architecture.”
“The question will be whether now that the restriction is lifted, will the result be a more elegant high rise or just another spire reaching to make a building the tallest in the West?” she wrote in an email.
The catalyst for the change is the 73-story Wilshire Grand Center, a skyscraper rising in downtown that will indeed, once completed, be the tallest building in the West, at 1,100 feet. Its architects asked the city two years ago for permission to top it with a spire - a conventional request in any other place - and that led to the creation of a commission to study the policy.
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Requirement 10 was “an antiquated idea, and it stunts the architecture in a city that is known for design,” said Christopher C. Martin, the tower’s chief architect. “Can you imagine the Academy Awards if all the actors came out and said, in all LA, we should have flattop haircuts?”
“In tall buildings, all the brush strokes should go up,” Martin added. “You should accentuate the height. To truncate the top is not attractive. This will be attractive, it will light up at night, it will be very sensational.”
Earthquake safety was never at issue: Requirement 10 had to do only with fire precautions. All new buildings constructed in Los Angeles, including the Wilshire Grand, are required to include strong measures to survive a huge earthquake.
The fact that it took this long to mix things up reflects the long-standing power of the Fire Department. Woo, who served on the city’s planning commission and City Council before becoming an academic dean, said he had tried without success to make the same change seven years ago.
“The Fire Department and the Police Department have a lot of power,” he said. “They basically said you will be endangering the lives of people in high-rise buildings, and if people are killed as a result of a fire or other disaster, the blood will be on your hands.”
Although the rule change was announced by Garcetti and Terrazas, there is clearly some dissent in the ranks. Patrick Butler, an assistant fire chief, wrote an op-ed article this month in the Los Angeles Times, rebuking the mayor and other officials.
“I worry that the mayor’s elimination of that ‘stupid rule' last week might make our job more difficult - and the public less safe,” Butler wrote.
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There are 50,000 people living downtown; 10 years ago, there were only 10,000. There are 788 buildings in the city that are categorized as high-rise buildings and another 22 in the works; nearly all of those are clustered in downtown. These days, thoroughfares that once looked deserted and menacing after business hours are bustling with people going to new restaurants and other destinations, like the Ace Hotel, which contains the newly restored Beaux-Arts United Artist Theatre.
“The future of downtown Los Angeles is not professional services - it’s entertainment, it’s bars, it’s restaurants,” said José Huizar, the City Council member who represents downtown Los Angeles. “People are looking for more creativity and not these dull flattops - the new downtown is not the old downtown.”