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Monday, April 2, 2007

Sprinkler Legislation Hearing Today

posted by on April 2 at 12:03 PM

Legislation extending the deadline for clubs to install expensive sprinkler systems will get a hearing in the state senate’s Ways and Means Committee at 1:30 this afternoon. The legislation would push the current December 2007 deadline for installing sprinklers back to December 2009, giving clubs two more years to install the systems. Club owners say they need extra time because only a handful of contractors do sprinkler installations, and because they need time to negotiate with landlords over who will pay for the systems.

In addition to extending the sprinkler deadline, the legislation, HB 1811 (and its companion bill, SB 5832) would change the definition of “nightclub” to encompass only clubs with open floors (no seating) of 350 square feet or more. That would eliminate smaller clubs and clubs with fixed seats. The bill would also provide a business and occupation tax break to anyone who has to install a sprinkler system, including club owners who lease their space; the break would amount to half the cost of installing a system. Tim Hatley, lobbyist for the Seattle Nightlife and Music Association, says he’s optimistic that the bill will get out of Ways and Means today, the deadline for bills to make it out of committee and onto the Senate floor.

Sprinkler systems are expensive—anywhere from several thousand dollars for the simplest installations to $70,000 or more for large venues like the Showbox. The cost varies depending on the size of the venue (the larger the place, the more pipes have to be installed) and whether the club has a four-inch water main (upgrading from a two-inch main costs $26,000.) Many club owners say they may have to shut down if the deadline is not extended.

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If you want to know why sprinklers in nightclubs are a good idea, read this:

I used to live a block away from the (still vacant) site of the Cocoanut Grove, and spent a lot of time walking around it, figuring out exactly where on which sidewalk they were stacking the bodies like cordwood, and where the half-naked showgirls jumped off the roof, and where the man's leg caught in the revolving door doomed a hundred people caught behind him, and where the filled-in hole of the stairwell down to the basement bar where it started, and where the firefighters rushed in to find the patrons still sitting at the bar, so that they shouted "you people have to get out of here!" before realizing they were all already dead.

That's the reason the EXIT signs stay lit when the power goes out, and it should be the reason why every nightclub has sprinklers, and why nightclubs that don't have them scare the shit out of me.

Posted by Fnarf | April 2, 2007 1:25 PM

Not terribly surprising that you wouldn't include this information Erica, but when was the legislation passed that required the sprinklers? Haven't the clubs already had several years to "negotiate with their landlords"? Seems that once again The Stranger cares far more about the financial health of their advertisers than the safety and welfare of their readers.

Posted by Let the rain put the fire out | April 2, 2007 1:58 PM

I agree that sprinkler systems are a good idea. How long it takes to get the systems installed and how clubs are able to afford them is the gist of this legislation. also what measures in the meantime can be taken by both clubs and the city to ensure the safety of customers needs to be addressed.

Seattle already has very strict fire-codes and the clubs have a good track record with complying and taking specific measures (based on specific buildings) to go even further to provide fire safety.

Hopefully the hearing today will address these important concerns.

Posted by kwab | April 2, 2007 2:09 PM

FNARF: The Cocoanut Grove looked to be a large capacity club. The Re-Bar, by comparison, is relatively small with numerous emergency exits. It's also located about a block away from the fire station. So yes, sprinklers are a good idea (I don't think anybody's disputing that) but I include this example by way of comparison to show how the cost-to-benefit ratio of installing sprinklers differs wildly by venue. This may seem cold, but one tragic fire 50 years ago and three thousand miles away compared to untold millions of non-burning, non-tragic club dates everywhere else doesn't tip the risk factor by a statistically significant amount.

Yes, reasonable steps should be taken to avoid such tragedies. No, the drive to have everything be perfectly safe all the time should not be used as a pretext to drive responsible businesses into bankruptcy. Ideally every place of business that draws large crowds should be fire-safe and earthquake-safe and tornado and hurricane-safe. But practically speaking, codes that enforced these things rigorously would be cost-prohibitive for many small businesses.

The frustration with the sprinkler regulation going into effect now is part of a larger picture where the costs of doing business for nightclubs in Seattle is rising dramatically and there are a host of new regulations coming down the pike which seem designed to make it harder for nightclubs to stay in business. They tend to operate on a narrow margin under the best of circumstances, and it isn't hyperbole to speculate that many of them will not be able to continue operations if their overhead keeps rising. The club owners are just asking for a little flexibility so that they can comply with these regulations.

I realize performing cost/benefit analyses that weigh human life against the dollar amount required to reduce risk seems cold-hearted, but businesses do it all the time and nightclubs are no different.

If you have ever dealt with city building and fire-code regulations for live entertainment venues, you would know that the rules and their enforcement can be truly byzantine. Whether you're in compliance can depend on who you ask. I think club owners are somewhat justified in their frustration with regulatory agencies keep moving the goalposts.

Posted by flamingbanjo | April 2, 2007 2:22 PM

well said Flamingbanjo.

i also wanted to add that the smoking ban has definitely brought the threat of fire inside clubs down considerably. and since the Rhode Island fire in 2003, every club has put restrictions (most a flat-out ban) on indoor pyro displays (its lucky for Seattle that the Murder City Devils broke up in 2001...although im glad i got to see them light themselves on fire all those times)

there are many things to consider about this issue. i really hope the clubs are given a fair shake in all of this. everyone i know is equally concerned about the safety of patrons and being able to stay in business, neither of which should be mutually exclusive.

Posted by kwab | April 2, 2007 2:49 PM


Where will it end? I suppose you'll want food inspections and doctors to have licenses to pratice medicine next?
What happens to our Freedom when we can't eat contaminated food or be treated by quacks?
Oh and we should ban safety belts, baby seats and airbags while where at it. Profit comes first after all.

Posted by Zander | April 2, 2007 2:54 PM

Profit Rules!

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 2, 2007 4:15 PM

Postponing decisions rules! And I'll take my Dudley Manlove Quartet extra-crispy, thank you. With a side of Bacon Strip!

Posted by frederick r | April 2, 2007 5:43 PM

Thank you, Fnarf. 65 years ago in Boston, 4 years ago in Rhode Island, and other instances in other cities. There's really no excuse for weaseling out of safety measures. Sprinkler systems are necessary. I understand concerns about cost but think they need to be put in sooner rather than later. And if a looming deadline makes that happen, then so be it.

Posted by rtw | April 2, 2007 5:45 PM

But #9, the looming deadline probably won't make that happen. It'll just drive some good people out of the business. Maybe someone new will take the same space, install sprinklers and start their own club. The economics of this may well be different for somebody buying into the business on the front end. They either have the capital to do that or they don't get in the business.

Conversely, existing business people are in the situation of having to back-fill and rejigger existing operating models.

This is in many ways a more complicated process than addressing these issues on the front end of opening up a club.

So the real question is how much do you value some of our existing clubs. I for one value some of these venues quite a bit. So I think it makes sense to try and work collectively to help these people meet their regulatory obligations without going out of business.

If it was Boeing or Microsoft being asked to comply with a regulatory scheme that was proportionally of the same magnitude to their overall bottom line, you can damn well bet that everyone would be working with them to insure that they could comply without going bankrupt.

Anytime someone is harmed in this sort of venue, it's a horrible thing. But I suspect that nationwide far more people have died in car accidents in the last year than have died in club fires in the last fifty years.

So far, I don't see anyone banning the car or requiring every driver of an old car to have it retrofitted with airbags, shoulder belts, and anti-lock brakes. The assumption is that over time attrition will drive most of these cars out of service.

This sprinkler bill is the functional equivalent of asking club owners to do that sort of a retrofit job. So I guess it doesn't seem completely unreasonable to me that these people should be given additional time to comply.

As far as I can tell, this law was passed in 2005, went in to effect in June of 2006, and mandated compliance by the end of 2007. That's just really not that much time when you think about it.

Most club owners lease space rather than own their own building. And since most commercial leases are triple/net, the Tenant is pretty much completely responsible for this sort of expense.

So while tax credits are certainly better than nothing, they end up benefiting the owner of the building more than the tenant, because this improvement stays with the building even after the tenant's lease expires. So right out of the gate, there is a little squeeze happening, where the amount of time that at club owner has to amortize this cost is limited.

Then there's the reality of the rental market. Anyone with any knowledge of the commercial rental market in neighborhoods like Ballard and Capitol Hill understands just how much club owners have already been getting squeezed on that front. Rents have gone up so much in the last ten years, that it's already giving a lot of people pause as to whether they can afford to stay in this business with rather thin margins.

So if you start with that reality and add another $50K-$100K onto it for sprinklers, you're really dumping a lot of extra expenses on people all at once.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't try to make this happen. It just means that if we value some of these existing business, we ought to take a more careful an nuanced approach to implementing these regulations.

Posted by j-lon | April 2, 2007 7:21 PM

j-lon, I know it's hard for the club owners, and it's kind of crap that they'd have to foot the bill rather than the owner of the building. However, when tragedies like this happen, they're often found negligent.

Sure, nuance the hell out of the approach to implement the regulations, just make sure the regulations get implemented soon. I go to shows a lot and don't want to see any venues shut down because of this, but I also don't want to burn to death some night just because someone is too busy whining about how unfair it is that they have to put in a sprinkler system.

Posted by rtw | April 2, 2007 9:21 PM

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