EDGEWATER, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — The owners want to rebuild at the site of a fire that destroyed 240 units in an Edgewater, New Jersey apartment complex, but city leaders say it is too dangerous.
As CBS2’s Lou Young reported, the January 2015 fire lit up the sky at the 408-unit Avalon at Edgewater complex near the Hudson River. A total of 500 people were left homeless.
City leaders think it could happen all over again if the owners rebuild. They say the only thing that can stop the construction is a change in the law.
The sign says Avalon, but people in the area remember it as “the fire.” The complex burned in a spectacular fashion – and also in a similar fashion as it did 15 years earlier during construction.
Edgewater Mayor Michael McPartland does not want to see it happen a third time.
“We got extremely lucky with this fire,” McPartland said. “I was looking at the footage yesterday and that was a tremendous fire; I mean, we were lucky — no one was hurt or killed.”
There were no deaths or serious injuries in the 2015 fire. But there were plenty of questions about the use of flammable, lightweight wood that fed the flames twice and reduced most of the complex to a pile of ash.
The builder has agreed to fire safety concessions for the new complex this time around.
“The concessions are masonry walls here, here, here to contain it,” said Edgewater fire Chief Thomas Jacobsen.
But the concessions, including additional sprinklers, are vulnerable – and Jacobsen said that is not enough by his lights.
“If it was my choice, it’d be concrete floors, tin studs — it’d be an all non-combustible building, if it’s going to be that magnitude and that size,” Jacobsen said. “Until the law changes, they could basically put back what they built.”
The senior vice president at Avalon told CBS2’s Young his company has agreed to upgrade fire safety measures at the Avalon at Edgewater and several other properties across the state. He called it “an appropriate measure.”
Fire officials across the state have complained repeatedly that New Jersey has acquiesced to minimal international standards, where just across the river, things are different.
“In New York, they wouldn’t be allowed to do that,” Jacobsen said. “And across the river in Manhattan, it would have to be non-combustibles — concrete and steel.”
The subject came up at a Wednesday night hearing on the project before the local zoning board. When asked if the new complex would be built with concrete and steel, the architect said no – the primary materials remain lightweight wood.
Borough zoning board members criticized the AvalonBay company’s plan to use hollow cinderblocks instead of solid ones in the building’s firewalls. Hollow cinderblocks are more than is required by the state’s building code, but board members questioned why they didn’t opt for solid blocks.
“If you’re going to go that far, why wouldn’t you build a block and make it that much more of a fire separation?” board member Robert Corcoran asked.
Architeect Stuart Lachs said they selected what they thought were appropriate measures in consultation with borough officials.
Steve Curry, the borough’s fire inspector, said the proposal met most of the requests made by the borough relating to fire safety, including storing fire ladders in the building’s courtyards and installing noncombustible material next to the firewalls on the outside of the building.
AvalonBay representatives said they would continue to discuss other requests made by the borough, including increasing the number of fire department connections at the complex.
A bill limiting the size of light wood structures and requiring fire suppression systems throughout could be on the floor of the New Jersey State Senate in Trenton this fall.
Investigators say the 2015 fire was started by an unlicensed plumber using a torch to repair a pipe.
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