At a press conference held in the parking lot on Franklin Avenue Tuesday, Bergen County Executive James Tedesco and Edgewater Mayor Michael McPartland joined Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert, Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, and a number of local residents who turned out to express concern about the safety of the new AvalonBay construction.
Ms. Lempert and Mr. Hughes called last week for the State Department of Community Affairs (DCA) to review New Jersey’s building code after a fire on January 22 destroyed a rental community owned by AvalonBay, the developer that will build 280 apartments on the former site of Princeton Hospital. The officials from northern New Jersey joined Ms. Lempert and Mr. Hughes in their call for more stringent measures.
The Avalon at Edgewater 408-unit apartment complex was built to code using lightweight, wood construction. While no one was seriously injured, the development burned to the ground in a five-alarm blaze, and displaced some 1,000 people.
Mr. Hughes and Ms. Lempert took slightly different approaches to the issue when interviewed Monday. While Mr. Hughes said he is not calling for new legislation, Ms. Lempert said that she is hoping for a revision of current laws.
“I’ve spent most of my life living in Princeton,” said Mr. Hughes. “What I’m interested in is for the DCA to say that this building is going to be safe. It’s in the best interest of AvalonBay, of Princeton, and the surrounding neighborhood. So I’m not calling for new legislation or a moratorium or anything like that. I just want to know from DCA that it’s safe. If its [construction is] an exact copy of the one in Edgewater, then that’s not the building for Princeton. I just want a clean bill of health. That’s all I want to see.”
Republican Assemblyman Scott Rumana, from Wayne, has said he is working on legislation that will put a moratorium of up to two years on the approval and construction of multi-family housing developments until the state’s building code is revised.
“There are obvious places to look as a first step,” said Ms. Lempert. “One is the sprinkler requirements. Another would be cinderblock dividers within the complex. They’re not required, and that’s the problem. We can only hold a developer to what’s written in the law. One of the more disturbing reports out of Edgewater was that it was supposedly built to code.”
Ms. Lempert said that unlike Mr. Hughes, she is hoping that the legislature is going to take another look at the building code. “There seems to be bipartisan agreement that this is something that needs to happen,” she said. “What I’m hoping is that the DCA, when they evaluate AvalonBay’s plans for Princeton, will do that based on new building codes.”
Ms. Lempert said Monday that she had not heard from AvalonBay, but is planning to approach the company about voluntarily changing the construction plan. “They’ve already submitted their plans to the DCA,” she commented. “Under normal circumstances, DCA would review those plans based on what the law was when they were submitted. Given what’s happened in Edgewater, I think everybody can recognize that it’s not enough.
“I also think it’s in AvalonBay’s interest,” she continued. “If they’re going to try to successfully rent the apartments, they’ll need to be able to assure people that the building was built differently from the one in Edgewater.”
At yesterday’s press conference Ms. Lempert described the Edgewater complex conforming to code as “cold comfort to those who suffered the trauma of losing their homes. Clearly we need to update the codes. This is an important issue not only for Princeton but for the entire state of New Jersey.”
Mr. McPartland spoke of the 250 firefighters from 35 towns, as well as fireboats from New Jersey and New York fire departments drawing water from the Hudson River to put out the blaze. “We’re not here to place blame but we have an obligation to make sure that codes keep up with building trends and materials.”
Mr. Tedesco, a former fireman, agreed: “This isn’t about an individual company, it’s about construction in New Jersey, whether the codes allow for people to live in a safe environment.” He suggested two changes for multi-story residential units that would have made all the difference in Edgewater: requiring a fully suppressed sprinkler system and masonry firewalls. He reported that DCA Commissioner Richard E. Constable had assured him that the codes would be looked at, and in a timely manner.
Questioned as to how long such a review might take, Mr. Tedesco estimated somewhere between 8 and 16 months. Mr. Hughes suggested that if the governor got behind it, the review could be done in a matter of weeks. Mr. Hughes also spoke positively about other AvalonBay buildings in Mercer County, but pointed out that these differed from both the Edqewater and the proposed Princeton developments in being only two-story constructions.
“We can’t change what happened in Edgewater,” added Mr. Tedesco, “but we can prevent other fires like it. Princeton doesn’t have the Hudson River and access to New York and New Jersey fireboats.”