GUEST COMMENTARY - Douglas Emmett Inc., a real estate investment trust (REIT) that owns and operates 4,500 apartments in the West Los Angeles area, has contributed over $300,000 to an independent expenditure fund operated by the Los Angeles Police Protective League (LAPPL) to support City Council District 11 candidate Traci Park.
The corporation’s financial support of Park’s campaign may be an attempt to circumvent installing lifesaving fire safety measures at one of their Sawtelle apartment complexes, Barrington Plaza.
Two fires have broken out at the complex within a nine-year span, leaving one resident dead and several others hospitalized. Barrington Plaza, built in 1962, does not have sprinklers due to a gap in Los Angeles’ fire safety codes that doesn’t require high-rises built between 1943 and 1974 to have sprinklers installed.
Current District 11 Councilmember Mike Bonin passed a motion to create an ordinance requiring the retrofit of these exempted buildings. The ordinance would force the buildings to conform to the current fire code requirements for high-rises. Should this motion pass, Douglas Emmett would be required to install sprinklers as well as other fire safety components, such as water storage tanks, fire pumps, and supply pipes.
The motion to create the ordinance will expire on August 4, 2023. Because Bonin is not running for reelection, the next council member in District 11 will likely determine whether the ordinance is created or allowed to expire.
When asked if she would follow through with the legislation set in motion by Bonin, Park responded, “I am aware of the Motion, which presents very serious life and safety issues in 55 buildings across our City. When elected, I will work closely with City officials, tenants, and the property owners to ensure that this problem is quickly, efficiently, and responsibly addressed.”
In addition to the $300,000 Douglas Emmett has contributed to the LAPPL’s independent expenditure fund supporting Park, employees of the company have directly contributed almost $10,500 in total to Park’s campaign. Douglas Emmett’s spending outpaces LAPPL itself, which has contributed $172,000 in their support of Park.
Douglas Emmett did not respond when reached for comment by time of publication.
Footage from the 2013 fire at Barrington Plaza.
The first blaze at Barrington Plaza — which consists of two 25-story towers — broke out in 2013 when an 11th-floor apartment in Tower A caught fire. Smoke filled the stairwells, affecting residents on even the uppermost stories of the building. Exacerbating the lack of fire sprinklers, many of the complex’s fire alarms failed to go off, leaving tenants on other floors unaware of the blaze until it was too late to evacuate.
Ivo Gerscovich — whose father-in-law and two-year-old daughter were discovered passed out in a smoke-filled stairwell on the 20th floor — told the LA Times, “It’s a deathtrap. It’s totally insane and indefensible.”
Just seven years later in 2020, another fire broke out in a sixth-floor apartment in Tower B. One photo shows a resident scaling the side of the tower from his balcony. He was later hospitalized — along with seven others — and reported to be in critical condition.
The fire injured 11 residents, including a three-month-old baby, as well as two firefighters. A French exchange student, 19-year-old Jeremy Bru, died two days later from his injuries.
Many tenants at Barrington Plaza blame the building’s lack of fire safety systems for the severity of the fires.
“They should have put sprinklers in after the  fire,” resident Liz Bowers told the LA Times. “The landlords don’t care.”
In 2020, residents of Barrington Plaza filed a class action lawsuit against Douglas Emmett Inc. and Barrington Pacific LLC, a subsidiary of Douglas Emmett and the corporate owner of Barrington Plaza. The suit alleges Douglas Emmett ignored complaints from residents about the buildings’ lack of basic safety measures for years. According to the suit, there are 712 apartments and approximately 1000 tenants at the facility. All of its units are rent stabilized, as the Los Angeles Housing Department’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance (RSO) applies to all rental properties completed before October 1, 1978.
Douglas Emmett — currently worth $3.38 billion — is hesitant to install potentially lifesaving sprinklers in their Barrington Plaza buildings due to the cost. The Los Angeles Fire Department estimated the cost of retrofitting the building with sprinklers at an average of $1,113,000 per high-rise. However, in a written comment regarding the motion, Barrington Pacific LLC claimed the retrofit would cost them closer to $150 million for their buildings.
Renovation work is additionally complicated by Barrington Plaza’s RSO status — Douglas Emmett cannot permanently evict tenants in RSO units while they install fire sprinklers.
Tenants in RSO housing who must temporarily relocate due to renovation work have two options: they can either permanently move out in exchange for financial relocation assistance or they may return to their units after renovations are complete, at which point the landlord can raise their rent by up to 10% or charge an additional $75 per month until renovation costs are recouped.
According to Bonin, Douglas Emmett initially agreed to install the fire sprinklers after Bonin proposed legislation, but only on the condition that the city amend the RSO. The REIT hoped to get out of legal requirements for tenant relocation and right of return.
“It was a brazen maneuver, suggesting they opposed lifesaving measures unless they could improve their bottom line,” said Councilmember Bonin. “Tenants deserve better than this shameful treatment.”
“The residents at all fifty-five high-rise residential buildings exempt from Los Angeles’ sprinkler system requirements deserve action,” said tenants rights lawyer Erin Darling, who is running against Park in District 11. “Once elected, I will roll up my sleeves and work with City Departments and stakeholders to follow through on the work already started to ensure residents and renters are protected and building owners are supported with the right financial tools.”
Should Park win the November 8 election, her campaign promise to strengthen public safety will be put to the test. Park will have to choose between instituting safety measures that may save tenant lives or maintaining the profits of the real estate and police interests contributing to her campaign.
(Bailey Benningfield is a writer for Knock-LA.com which first published this article. A journalism project paid for by Ground Game LA, which has endorsed Erin Darling for City Council. This article was not authorized or paid for by a candidate or a committee controlled by a candidate.) PHOTO: Barrington Plaza high-rise ablaze on January 29, 2020. (LAFD)