February 8, 2017

Fire in Maplewood Hits Avalon Bay Site Still Under Construction

A fire last Saturday that ripped through an AvalonBay Communities apartment complex in Maplewood, under construction and scheduled to open in March, destroyed many of its units. While this is the second major blaze in two years at a property owned by AvalonBay, which opened Avalon Princeton last fall, a company official said the Witherspoon Street development is more than up to code.

“Safety is our topmost priority at AvalonBay, which is why we continue to incorporate safeguards beyond what is required,” said Ronald S. Ladell, senior vice president, development, in an email. “For example, AvalonBay voluntarily incorporated the safeguards of National Fire Protection Association Standard 13 С a standard that is greater than what is required by the current building code С in Maplewood. This includes the installation of more sprinklers throughout the building, including in the attics, closet spaces, and between the ceilings and floors. In addition, we upgraded the fire safety for these buildings by installing masonry firewalls, which are not required for this building type by the current code or NFPA 13. These fire safety enhancements have been incorporated in Princeton.”

The Maplewood fire began about 1:30 a.m. Saturday. Its cause, being investigated by the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, has yet to be determined. More than 120 firefighters were at the scene. The fire involved two of the three buildings under construction. One firefighter who slipped on the ice was reported injured.

The fire in Edgewater two years ago leveled that complex and was “very different” from the Maplewood situation, Mr. Ladell said. It was caused “during a maintenance procedure. The Maplewood development was still under construction, and unfortunately the additional safeguards incorporated in our design were not yet fully operational.”

After the Edgewater fire in January 2015, AvalonBay voluntarily upgraded fire protection systems in the Maplewood and Princeton complexes, which were not yet under construction. Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert and Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes were among a group of lawmakers who called for an upgrade of New Jersey’s fire codes. But while numerous bills to tighten codes have been
introduced in the state Legislature, none have moved forward.

Ms. Lempert wrote a letter to the Commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs shortly after the Edgewater fire. “It’s unbelievable that even after that disaster, state legislation to strengthen our building and fire regulations has stalled,” she said Tuesday in an email. “We have done everything in our power locally to ensure Princeton’s AvalonBay development is safe. Princeton’s professional staff has done an excellent job in ensuring AvalonBay follows all safety measures at the site, including making sure building sprinkler systems and the stand-pipes in construction areas are in service. They are also monitoring to make sure Avalon is actively conducting a fire watch during the off hours.”

Several apartments at the 280-unit Princeton complex, which stands on the former site of Princeton’s hospital, are occupied. Construction is still underway on its townhouses, and its rear building has partial certificates of occupancy and is not fully complete, according to Princeton’s land use engineer Jack West.

Mr. Ladell said he appreciates the efforts of first responders from Maplewood and nearby towns in limiting the fire damage and preventing any serious injury. “We have worked closely with the Township of Maplewood and their building and fire departments over the past two years on the development and construction of Avalon Maplewood and we greatly appreciate their diligence and stringent attention to detail throughout the process,” he said.

In a story that ran on northjersey.com, Glenn Corbett, an associate professor of fire safety at John Jay College in New York, said AvalonBay should be commended for their voluntary additions of extra sprinklers and masonry firewalls in Maplewood and Princeton. But he said the developer should only be using lightweight wood construction in buildings that are “smaller and shorter.” Current law allows construction for buildings up to 60 feet tall if the first level is concrete, such as a parking deck, he said.