3 buildings' height raises safety issues

Published: Sunday, January 26, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 26, 2003 at 12:10 a.m.
Ben Schachter knows that Gainesville Fire Rescue's ladders wouldn't reach to the top of his proposed high-rise buildings. In fact, they won't even make it half way.
And he's aware that Midtown's three 280-foot buildings and college students could become a dangerous mix, but the Boca Raton developer says those concerns have already been addressed.
"We wouldn't be at this stage of planning if we hadn't thought of these things," said Schachter, the 24-year-old University of Florida graduate heading the project planned near Gainesville's downtown. "These are things you address in the first stages of planning."
Midtown is a trio of mixed-use, high-rise buildings planned for the southeast corner of SW 6th Street and SW 2nd Avenue. Two apartment buildings aimed at the college student market - one standing at 26 stories and one at 23 stories - would provide housing for approximately 1,500 renters. A 23-story hotel would include 300 rooms. All three buildings would also include office and retail space, as well as 1,000 parking spaces in the lower floors of the buildings.
The height of Midtown's proposed buildings has some residents wondering if the city's fire department is equipped to handle a high-rise fire. After all, the ladders on Gainesville's fire trucks can carry firefighters up only 100 feet.
But Gainesville Fire Rescue spokesman Stuart Schwartz says the department is already well-prepared for Midtown.
"I wouldn't make too much of the ladder issue," Schwartz said. "The best fire departments in the country only have ladders that reach to about 125 feet. But there's more than one way to fight a fire."
Schwartz says serious fires are rare in tall buildings - largely because of building codes that require heavy-duty fire walls and sprinkler systems in buildings taller than eight stories. Because of those measures, he said, more than 90 percent of high-rise fires are extinguished before firefighters arrive on the scene.
The cost of complying with fire codes may be one of the reasons why no one has tried to build this high in Gainesville before, according to the owners of two of downtown Gainesville's largest buildings.
David Holbrook, owner of the 11-story Seagle building on W. University Avenue, says sprinkler maintenance costs him thousands of dollars per year. And, Union Street Station owner Ken McGurn has said fire code compliance is one of the main reasons he hasn't built a building taller than eight stories.
Schachter says those costs are already factored into his business plan. "I can't break it down for you right now and say exactly how much fire suppression is going to cost," he said. "But it won't break us."
With space for as many as 1,500 renters in Midtown's proposed apartment buildings, Schwartz said, Midtown could generate a far larger number of fire department calls in the downtown area. But with Gainesville's Fire Station Number One just a few blocks away, he said, the city has the resources to handle a downtown population boom.
Inviting trouble If Midtown is built according to the current plan, many of the building's residents will have rooms with balconies. That's a feature Norbert Dunkel, head of the University of Florida's housing department, says the university would never add to a high-rise dormitory.
"It invites trouble," Dunkel said. "Whenever you have open windows in a high-rise, students will throw things out. They'll set up their own computer networks and try to run lines from room to room. And if they've been drinking, they might even try to jump from balcony to balcony."
Windows at Beatty Towers, UF's twin high-rise residence halls are sealed shut - as are the windows at taller dormitories on most campuses across the country, Dunkel said. That's partly because university officials fear that students could be injured or killed in dangerous stunts or suicide attempts, he said.
But mostly, he said, it's because of the common problem of students lobbing objects that could injure people on the ground.
"It you have an open window, somebody's going to throw something out of it," he said.
Gainesville Police Department spokesman Keith Kameg says the city hasn't seen a serious injury or death from a high-rise fall - either accidental or intentional - in several years.
"It hasn't been one of our major problems," he said.
Schachter says he doesn't consider death by horseplay to be a major problem at Midtown's balconied apartments.
"We trust the intelligence of the students at Santa Fe Community College and the University of Florida," he said. "These are serious students, and I don't think they'll create problems like that."
But if students do throw objects out of Midtown's windows, Schachter said, they could be bolted shut.
"If it becomes a problem, we'll take the proper precautions," he said. "That would turn the balconies into large picture windows, basically. But I'd hate to do that. They're one of our more important features."
Tim Lockette can be reached at 374-5088 or lockett@gvillesun.com.

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