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You've Got Stub, LA: Should City Change Its Skyline?

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In a two-part series, Curbed looks at a long-standing, but far-from-universally-embraced Los Angeles building code that requires all buildings 75 feet and taller to have a helicopter landing pad. Part 1 runs today, Part 2 tomorrow.:

Remember “LA Law”’s opening shot, the close-up of an '80s-era downtown? If the city looks a lot better today, one thing that hasn’t changed about downtown is its flat skyline. The boxy look of the city’s buildings isn’t due to lack of architectural creativity, but the result of a Los Angeles Fire Department code requiring helicopter landing pads on all tall buildings.

In place for more than 20 years, the code is seen as a design handcuff by critics, one that makes for mediocre-looking architecture.

“You go to Chicago, you see a lovely, animated skyline,” says Scott Johnson, whose Johnson Fain firm designed the MGM Tower and SunAmerica Tower in Century City. LA’s code, he says, “makes for bad buildings and a bad skyline.”

But prodded by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Building and Safety General Manager Bud Ovrom now says his department will lead a discussion on whether the LAFD-mandated code should be changed. Given that Los Angeles is the only major city in the country with the requirement, Ovrom is wading into a politically sensitive debate with the LAFD by asking the question: “Is it not possible to have both good design and adequate fire safety measures? “

According to Ovrom, Mayor Villaraigosa first began talking about the city’s skyline back in 2006, after returning from a trip to Asia. “He came back and said, ‘Why is all the architecture in these Asian cities more exciting than ours?’” says Ovrom. ‘He said, ‘Why do our buildings look like boxes?’”

The crown on downtown's Library Tower may obscure its flat top, and the glass curtain on the Ritz-Marriott may distract from its neatly trimmed roof, but all around Los Angeles, one sees squared-off roofs. From the art-deco inspired condo towers of the Wilshire Corridor to the boxy office towers of Hollywood to the gleaming skyscrapers of Century City, LA's skyline is more stubby than spectacular.

Ovrom says it’s ultimately up to the LAFD to decide whether to change the rule, but says he will start discussions early next year, a process which will also likely involve the Planning Department.

The Mayor’s office declined to be interviewed, but in a statement, the Mayor said that a slow economic period was the right time to re-evaluate our existing building codes to foster "safety and architectural creativity."

“A dynamic skyline,” he said, “is the hallmark of any major city and Los Angeles is no exception.”

To the LAFD, the landing pad—called a helipad or helispot—is a progressive measure, putting Los Angeles ahead of other cities in terms of fire safety. It allows for the delivery of firefighters and equipment, avoiding the need for firefighters to walk up staircases. The helipads can also evacuate dozens of people.

Changing the code for design reasons is non-negotiable.

“Why would I go backwards in public safety for aesthetic reasons?” says Mark Stormes, Assistant Fire Chief at the LAFD. He points to the Gensler-designed Ritz-Marriott as an example of a building with both interesting architectural features and a helipad. “They worked with the fire department to come up with a unique design,” he says. “We’re just saying, just leave us room to let us land a helicopter.”

“If I seem inflexible,” he adds later, "it’s in the spirit of safety.”

The helipad rule, mandated on all buildings 75 feet or higher, was born out of statewide fire codes that emerged in the 1970s, according to Stormes. Long Beach has the same rule, as do parts of Orange County. Los Angeles County also has a similar code. San Diego used to have the helipad rule, but dropped it, to the delight of architects in that city. ("Architecturally, it's definitely enhanced the skyline," says San Diego-based architect Joseph Martinez, of having the rule changed. His firm Martinez + Cutri Corporation Architects has put up five high-rises since the requirement was dropped.)

Fire safety experts believes LAFD’s history with the helipad is tied to its long-standing Air Operation division. Since 1962, the LAFD has maintained an aerial division; today, it has six helicopters, a far bigger fleet than most other cities. If the division is constantly busy—rescuing hikers from canyons, or fighting wildfires--the helicopters are rarely used to fight high-rise fires.

But the instances have been dramatic: In 1988, a fire tore through the 62-story First Interstate Bank Building (now the AON Building) downtown. Pilots in LAFD helicopters could see “a man waving frantically from a 50th-floor window,” according to a Los Angeles Times report, and were able to direct firefighters inside the tower to him (the man later died). Helicopters also delivered firefighters to the roof, and evacuated wounded people.

Besides that incident, LAFD helicopters aided in a 1976 fire at the Occidental Tower (now the AT&T building).

Other examples? Even Stormes admits there aren't many--and he can't name a single incident in the last 20 years. But in the LAFD’s eyes, the helipad is there for the “what if” scenario, be it a raging inferno or a terrorist attack. The helipad is seen as innovative, and if other cities don't have them, well, "at one point, cars didn't have air bags," Stormes says.

Battalion Chief Timothy Kerbrat, who works in LAFD Air Operations, puts it another way. Anyone wishing to see the helipad dropped as a requirement, “might change their mind if they were stuck in a high-rise fire,” he says.

On the other side is Johnson, who believes the decision doesn’t belong simply to the Fire Department. In a city that often doesn’t have the will to challenge long-standing ideas, he believes this issue has been politicized. “Architecture has to be part of this discussion,” he says.

Part 2 runs tomorrow: When you challenge the helipad requirement, you’re also challenging how the LAFD fights fires, and that's a sensitive issue. Plus: Fire safety in high-rises after 9/11. UPDATE: Here's Part 2.
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