February 15, 2017

After Fire at Maplewood AvalonBay, Local Residents Work to Change Codes

Ever since a fire leveled the AvalonBay apartment complex in Edgewater two years ago, local residents concerned about safety at the company’s development on Witherspoon Street, which opened last fall but still has sections under construction, have been pushing for upgrades in New Jersey’s building and fire codes. They have stepped up their efforts since February 4, when another blaze destroyed part of an AvalonBay complex under construction in Maplewood.

“There are so many people working to change the codes,” said Princeton resident Alexi Assmus, one of several involved in the effort. “We have been doing an amazing amount of work. There are also citizens in Teaneck and Wayne who are trying to do this. It’s a big effort.” 

Currently, there are five bills in the state legislature, from various constituencies, calling for changes in the codes. Local politicians including Mayor Liz Lempert and Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes were among those who tried to get the laws changed two years ago, but bills have been stalled. While AvalonBay voluntarily upped their protection following the Edgewater fire and is up to code, there is concern that the lightweight wood construction they use is too vulnerable to fires.

“From my perspective, the buildings are too large in footprint as well as height and need a higher level of protection,” said Glenn Corbett, an associate professor of fire science at John Jay College. “Firewalls and sprinklers are the two big issues,” he continued, speaking about the building codes. “Also, there needs to be access for fire apparatus. A lot of them don’t have that level of protection, and they are very tall. Some don’t have access because they have courtyards. So, we’re hoping for size reduction and improvements in the protection of the buildings themselves, as well as masonry firewalls.”

Mr. Corbett suggests improvements in the fire code as well. “In the past, most complexes were 14-to-18-unit buildings. There are tons of these complexes, but they are separate and distinct buildings. That has been the traditional model. But in the last 10 to 15 years, it has shifted to connected, mega-wood buildings. And that’s not unique to AvalonBay. It is something our fire code needs to address — the issue of exposure. The Maplewood fire took out buildings across the street.”

There are concerns about allowing people to move in to a complex before it is finished, which is the situation at Avalon Princeton. “When a major wood frame building like that is not completed, a lot of surface area and a lot of wood can be burning simultaneously,” Mr. Corbett said. “It’s sort of like a vertical lumber yard. We have to decide, what is the threat to people already living there?”

Ms. Assmus said six legislators have sponsored the bill she and others support, and they are working to get more. “We have been attending the New Jersey Fire Safety Commission meetings. I made a presentation to their code council in December about the bill,” she said. “The Commission recommends what is in front of the legislature, a bill by Assemblyman John Wisniewski [chairman of the New Jersey Fire Safety Commission]. The bill we support has even more. It limits the area as well as the height. Ours is the most comprehensive bill.”

The six-alarm fire in Maplewood was the third blaze at an AvalonBay property in North Jersey. The other two were in Edgewater, on the same site. While AvalonBay voluntarily upped its fire protection measures in Maplewood, the extra sprinklers and masonry firewalls had not been completed when the February 4 blaze broke out. The cause has yet to be determined. The Edgewater fire was blamed on an unlicensed maintenance worker who accidentally started it with a blowtorch. Nearly 1,000 people were displaced and about 500 left homeless.

While the proposed legislation is “stuck in neutral,” Mr. Corbett said, there are two avenues to achieving the desired change. “It can be done either legislatively. Or it could be done administratively by DCA (Department of Community Affairs),” he said. “That could be done tomorrow. The other alternative is to have the bills actually go somewhere instead of sitting in a committee. Vincent Prieto [Assemblyman and Speaker] hasn’t moved any of them and ironically, he’s a code official. We don’t know why. He’s made promises he hasn’t kept. We’ve been pushing since Edgewater.”

Mr. Prieto did not respond to a request for comment.