Parks in the Sky and Other Rooftop Possibilities

With the elimination of helipad requirements, part of a decades-old Los Angeles fire code, architects now have more design options for high-rise rooftops. 

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Last week, Mayor Eric Garcetti stood on top of a 30-story Downtown Los Angeles building to celebrate the elimination of a decades-old fire code that mandated that all city high-rises have flat roofs for helicopter landings. Though well intentioned, Garcetti and others also called it outdated. The directive, the mayor said, was “one more stupid rule in Los Angeles.”

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Now that the 1974 requirement has been lifted, architects, planners and others are starting to ponder the design possibilities. Finally there is the chance, they say, to reshape and reuse the city’s skyline.

Although the change in the regulation applies citywide, its biggest impact will likely be in Downtown, where numerous high-rises are in the planning stage.

The old rule, known as Regulation 10, applied to buildings more than 75 feet tall. Although flat roofs are still allowed, the change gives developers the freedom to move away from a concrete slab and install a sloping roof, a spire or something else as long as they include enhanced safety features in other parts of the building. Those measures, said L.A. Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas, include a dedicated fire service elevator, quick-response sprinkler heads, a video camera surveillance system in the elevators, a fire control room and wider stairways for evacuating the building.

The old system thwarted innovation, Garcetti said at the event on Monday, Sept. 29, on the top of the AT&T Center. The revision, he added, means Los Angeles is taking the handcuffs off architects and allowing them to be as creative as their peers in skyscraper-loving Chicago and New York, not to mention international cities.

One of those eager to work with the new regulation is Rob Jernigan, managing principal of the Los Angeles office of architectural giant Gensler. The company has local headquarters in City National Plaza and has worked on projects including the (flat-roofed) Ritz-Carlton/J.W. Marriott hotel tower at L.A. Live.

Jernigan said that during a recent visit to Manhattan he stood on the roof of a tower and enviously looked down at all the “fun” rooftops around him that offered gardens, green spaces and communal areas. Los Angeles, given its weather, should be known for creative rooftops featuring outdoor amenities, he said. 

“I would love to see a bunch of parks in the sky,” said Jernigan. “Roofs should absolutely be habitable spaces for people.”

New Opportunity

The old rules were intended to allow for helicopter rescues in the event of a fire. However, that isn’t as easy as it might seem. Jernigan noted that, in speaking with helicopter pilots, he was told, “The last thing you ever want to do is land a helicopter on a burning building,” given how a blaze’s updraft could jostle an aircraft. 

The changes came about after a group of people was convened by Garcetti to work with his office, 14th District City Councilman José Huizar and representatives from the Building and Safety and Fire departments. Behind-the-scenes efforts, though, have been going on for years. Under Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, then-Planning Commissioner Michael Woo urged officials to scrap the flat-roof policy. Fire Department brass balked, citing safety concerns.  

Huizar said the revised code will allow Downtown buildings to be more distinctive and will reflect the city’s vision, progress and creativity. The skyline, he said, should offer more than “rectangular boxes built to soaring heights.”

Architects from Gensler were among those who worked with designers and Fire Department officials for years to offer input on how the code should be modified, Jernigan said. So did members of other architecture firms including Downtown’s AC Martin. Over at developer

Mack Urban, there was so much input from CEO Paul Keller that Garcetti joked the new rule should be called “the Keller code.” 

The revised code is also an indicator that city and Fire Department officials are working with engineers, architects and developers in a new way, said Chris Martin, CEO of AC Martin. Fire inspectors used to come in after a project was finished, he said, which could mean millions of extra dollars to revise something that could have been avoided if all parties had been talking from the beginning. 

“There was a major disconnect,” said Martin.

Martin’s firm has been at the forefront of the new code. AC Martin and developer Korean Air previously received a green light from the city to use a sloping roof at the $1.1 billion Wilshire Grand replacement. The 73-story tower is scheduled to open in 2017.

Martin called the change overdue, and also foresees a sea of green roofs with amenities ranging from parks to swimming pools. He said there is a financial upside, too: Helipads can cost $250,000 to $2 million, and he predicts the savings will lead to aesthetic innovation. 

The timing works out, Jernigan said, for phase two of Metropolis, a massive Gensler-designed South Park effort from Shanghai-based Greenland Group. In addition to phase one, which will bring a 38-story condominium building and a 19-story hotel to the 6.33-acre parcel along Francisco and Eighth streets, the company is building two additional towers, at 54 and 40 stories tall. 

Will Wright, director of government and public affairs at the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects, lauded the decision to toss the old code. In the past, he said, design was frequently the last priority when it came to constructing buildings. That should not be the case for a global city such as Los Angeles. 

“Design affects how a city functions and looks,” he said. “If I’m walking down the street, I want to feel good about living here. The better you feel, the more civically engaged you’ll be.” 

donna@downtownnews.com

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2014