In the 1980s, I lived in a studio apartment in the Adelphia House at 1229 Chestnut Street. The Adelphia House in those days was an affordable place with some 358 apartments, 351 of which were studio or efficiency rentals. The 20-story building was originally an upscale hotel, the change to apartments having occurred in the 1970s. 

My apartment on the sixth floor faced the bell tower of Saint John the Evangelist Catholic Church. 

Designed by architect Horace Trumbauer, the Adelphia served as a gateway residence for students and young people moving into Center City. A one-year lease was enough time in which to get to know Center City, and then possibly make a move into a larger apartment in another city location. 

One of the disadvantages of living in the Adelphia, or any high-rise apartment or condominium complex for that matter, would be the occurrence of real and false fire alarms. In most cases, the setting off of the Adelphia alarms was the result of somebody having burnt the pork chops on their small electric range. There were many such incidents in the Adelphia: a student or an elderly person putting something on the range, falling asleep, and then waking up to a smoke disaster.  

These food “fires” always led to a full evacuation of the building, which meant hundreds of tenants crammed in the lobby until the “fire” was brought under control.  

I recall one late night summer incident when Adelphia residents congregated on Chestnut Street in their pajamas and bathrobes. While this was no ordinary food fire — it was severe enough to have the Red Cross set up a coffee and donut rescue mission in the basement of St. John’s — the alarms were so effective in chasing tenants out of the building that even the hungover goth kids in the building were shaken out of their slumber.      

The Adelphia House’s elaborate alarm system worked like a charm. If anything, the alarms were too sensitive, sometimes going off when hit by too much steam from running showers. It was a system that worked, and worked well. 

There certainly weren’t any politicians in City Council sponsoring bills to have every resident of a Center City high rise unit, apartment or condo, pay between $25,000 and $50,000 to install a private sprinkler system in case their pork chops burned. 

Politicians didn’t think like that then, or if they did they at least had the common sense to know that while sprinkler systems may work well in commercial buildings, and indeed are often necessary there, to try and force individual condo owners with units 75 feet off the ground to shell out their own money for boutique sprinkler systems would be, at best, an outrageous stretch.

Unless, of course, there was some double-dealing behind the scenes, say a mighty sprinkler system corporation supporting a candidate for office and then when that candidate won, expecting a return on their investment.

Isn’t this how dirty politics works? 

Lincoln Steffens may have died in 1936, but that does not mean there’s still not plenty of ammunition behind his famous saying, “Philadelphia is simply the most corrupt and the most contented.”

All of which leads us to City Councilperson Mark Squilla, first elected to Council in 2011 after serving since 1998 on the Democratic City Committee Ward 39B, and making a name for himself as an ace community organizer and public servant. 

Squilla’s predecessor was the legendary Frank DiCicco, whose major accomplishment as First District Councilperson was the ten-year tax abatement plan that reignited development in Center City. 

Squilla’s district covers parts of Center City, Chinatown, South Philadelphia, Fishtown, Kensington and Port Richmond, which makes him a well known political entity to urban planning-obsessed millennial types, many of whom moved here from other cities to make a name for themselves in their work of taking over neighborhood civic associations from more indigenous types.     

Squilla, a favorite of the young urban opportunists, was perceived by many others as mostly one of the “good politicians.” Like fellow City Councilperson Allan Domb, who manages to turn up at hundreds of city events in countless smiling photo-ops, Squilla has perfected his own people’s magic act as a trusted icon.

Mark Squilla, along with Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson, have joined forces to sponsor City Council bill 220299, which would require the installation of fire sprinkler systems in all existing high-rise condominiums, cooperative and apartment buildings higher than 75 feet. 

Squilla’s partnership with Richardson, a young and  affable first-term Councilmember At-Large, seems on the surface an odd mix, as if Richardson’s newbie status might somehow be linked to a form of naiveté — a younger member of Council being swayed to partner up with an older, more experienced and well known Council member to sponsor a bill that, well, stinks.    

Bill 220299 was introduced in April 2022 but has only recently begun to drum up attention and reaction, most of it adverse. If passed by Council, the bill would cost unit owners and renters upwards of $50,000 per unit to install special sprinkler systems in their units. 

As the management of Society Hill Towers noted in a letter to residents:

“These costs do not account for units with custom ceilings and finishes, nor relocation costs if required. In our case, it would require removal of most hallway ceilings, the installation of sprinkler pipes in the hallways and sprinkler pipes and heads in each unity.”  

The Towers also noted that while it agrees that sprinklers save lives in fires, “to require a complete retrofit is costly and impractical, especially when our building is primarily constructed of concrete and steel, with fire rated walls and doors.”  

Landlord groups are lining up to oppose the bill, and the Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors (GPAR) has already loaded its guns in opposition. 

In a statement to the Philadelphia Inquirer, GPAR stated that they “questioned whether sprinkler systems were as effective as hard-wired smoke detectors, which are already required in high-rise buildings.”

Melody Zimmerman, director of government affairs for GPAR, said, “The decision to install additional fire safety devices should be a consumer choice, not a mandate.” 

The sudden impetus for mandatory fire sprinklers in private high rise residences is the brainchild of District 6 former Councilperson Bobby Henon, who left office in January 2022 after being convicted of bribery for “partnering” with John J. Dougherty in exchange for a $70,000 a year union salary.

As far back as 2018, Squilla worked with Henon on the sprinkler project, which began reasonably enough with getting sprinkler systems into historic buildings, and after that into high-rise buildings.

A Society Hill Towers resident I spoke to regarding the proposed bill told me that she thinks the bill is going after condo/co-op owners “because the assumption is that they can pay.” 

The assumption here is that all condo owners are wealthy; therefore, $25,000 to $50,000 shouldn’t be a problem. Just pay it if you want to live in Philadelphia. 

“If they cared about safety they’d try to improve safety in row houses where fires occur.  Trade unions will have a gold mine if this bill passes. You can imagine the corruption,” the 20 year resident of the Towers told me. 

Ironically, the Inquirer piece on Squilla’s bill included a photograph of a building not tall enough to be affected by the bill. There was also mention of the Fairmount row house fire last year. Yet a row house is about as far from a condo/coop high rise as Germantown is from Honolulu. 

The Inquirer also quoted Squilla’s mention of the 2018 arson of an Old City building that displaced hundreds of people, and made mention of the fire inside the PHA-owned Fairmont row house. All unrelated to Center City condos and coops, of course, especially the Old City fiasco which was caused by two shady hookah bar operatives. 

“If this passes, we would like to do all buildings,” Squilla told the Inquirer. “We’ll get pushback from all landlords. But it’s a small step.”

A small step to where? To making Center City even more unaffordable than it is?  

Bill 220299 has the crookedness of Bobby Henon written all over it, especially when one considers that there have been no high rise fires in the city since the Meridian building fire in 1991. Except, of course, there was a PHA owned high rise fire on the 4400 block of Holden Street back in 2019. The fire started in the trash chute but was quickly put out.  

Society Hill Towers, which is not PHA owned, had one more thing to add about Squilla’s bill. 

“We do not oppose sprinklers in high rise buildings, only a requirement that would force a retrofit with no consideration to difficulty, cost, and necessity.” 

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York, Frontpage Magazine and the Philadelphia Irish Edition. He is the author of fifteen books, including ”Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” 

4 thoughts on “Thom Nickels: City Council’s proposed sprinkler ordinance looks to be costly and ineffective”

  1. Trust politicians to turn what should be a safety issue, deserving logical thinking into an opportunity for graft and corruption. One would think that the next Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is just around the corner from the blather surrounding the issue.

  2. It is obvious by your article that you do not understand how sprinkler systems work. Sprinklers only operate when there is heat, not smoke. The temperature at the ceiling would need to be above 135 degrees for some residential sprinklers or 155 degrees for others. Please do some research before writing in accurate articles which includes the cost to owners/tenants.

  3. Mr. Nickels, thank you for your interest on this matter. Did you know 80% of fire deaths come from residential fires. That includes residential high-rise occupancy’s. Also, most of these residential buildings already have fire department connections (FDCs), fire pumps and standpipes. Those components actually will help to greatly lower the cost of installation. Fire sprinklers are proven to save lives.

  4. Thank you for this excellent article. Please publish any recommendations or advice on how we as individuals can fight this bill. I am retired and a painter. Much of my inspiration comes through sky gazing from my perch on the 22nd floor of my building. Our alarm system is excellent. High-rise living is very conducive for older people like me. I stick within my budget, I do not own a car, use public transportation, grocery delivery, and greatly value living in community among my high-rise neighbors. This ordinance would be financially devastating. I would have to sell and move and frankly, to where?

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