September 20, 2017

Senior Living Complex Proposed for Harrison Street Spurs Fire Safety Concerns

By Anne Levin

During the public comment period at Princeton Council’s meeting on September 11, the issue of fire safety was raised by two residents of the town. Paul Driscoll and Alexi Assmus asked Council to consider making round-the-clock fire watches a requirement during construction of large-scale, wood housing.

Their request was motivated by the recent announcement that Sunrise Senior Living wants to construct a 76-unit development on North Harrison Street, near Princeton Shopping Center. The plans call for a two-story building with 52 units, and a one-story building with 25.

It is during the construction phase of such projects, before sprinklers are installed, that fires frequently happen, Assmus and Driscoll told the governing body. And they offered some statistics to back it up.

“There have been so many construction fires recently,” Assmus said a few days after the meeting. “In Maplewood this past February; in Waltham, Kansas City, Oakland, Raleigh, and many other places, there have been these fires that spread and damaged buildings nearby.”

A partial list on the Facebook site “Massive Fires Damage Lives” identifies 34 across the country. Assmus, Driscoll, and fellow citizens Kip Cherry and Grace Sinden are among those who have been working on the issue for months, along with architects and attorneys who don’t want to be named, Assmus said.

They are seeking changes at the national, state, and municipal levels. The state can legislate that large buildings of lightweight wood construction be limited in size. “We believe that large-scale structures should be built of non-combustible materials, and we support New Jersey state bill S1632/A3770, which would limit the size of megablock wood housing complexes,” Assmus said.

The AvalonBay complex on Witherspoon Street is lightweight wood. The company, which owns rental communities where large fires have occurred in Edgewater and Maplewood, voluntarily upgraded its fire protection systems for the Princeton complex. Other developments in town are of wood construction, but in a different configuration. “We took Merwick Stanworth (Princeton University faculty housing on Bayard Lane) as a model, because it is lightweight wood but the buildings are separated,” Assmus said. “The bill we’re supporting requires that.”

While a municipality does not have the ability to regulate the size of a building, it can require a fire watch, to be paid for by developers, while construction is underway. “What we heard at the Council meeting is that they’re a little hesitant to get into it,” Assmus said. “It’s unclear in the current code whether they could.”

She added, “We think that given the litigious nature of these corporate developers who build these huge wood apartment complexes, there should be a requirement on the books. Sprinklers aren’t active when they’re building, and that’s a very dangerous time. So there should be a 24-7 fire watch. That’s what we’re asking the town to do.”

Asked for comment on the issue this week, Mayor Liz Lempert said, “We feel that our current ordinances give our officials the necessary tools and flexibility to require safety precautions during construction. I support the group’s efforts to strengthen the state code regulating large lightweight construction to improve fire safety.”

Those in favor of the requirement hope to persuade Mayor Lempert and Council otherwise. Assmus said the group plans to meet with others in town who are concerned about fire safety. “We want to meet with government people, too, and explain to them why we think it’s wise to have this,” she said. “We’re reaching out to people we know who work in municipal matters, and informing them about it. And we will continue to work for changes at the state and national levels as well.”