For decades, the upper reaches of the Los Angeles skyline have been somewhat anticlimactic. Glimmering glass and steel towers rise from downtown or Century City or the Miracle Mile, glinting in the bright sunny sky, only to top out in a dud: the city's fire code mandates helipads on the tops of skyscrapers taller than 75 feet, which has resulted in a skyline of flat roofs. There are an estimated 745 high-rise buildings in the city, and only a small handful that were built before the rules were enacted in the 1950s have anything but the scissor-snip of a flat top.
But that will soon change. In late September, the Los Angeles Fire Department officially revised its regulations to no longer require helipads on the city's high-rises. Architects and developers are already excited about the possibilities.
"It's going to absolutely change the downtown skyline," says Arpy Hatzikian, principal at Gensler's L.A. office. She was one of the architects on a panel convened by the fire department two years ago to explore changing the rules.
Under the revised regulation, buildings taller than 75 feet will no longer require helipads on their roofs, so long as they implement other safety features, such as additional stairwells, dedicated elevators for firefighters, and wider stairwells. The panel—in consultation with fire officials, building engineers, safety officials, and helicopter pilots—found these to be sufficient safety alternatives to the helipads, which due to the rarity of fires in high-rises were not often used.
Not everyone is convinced the rule change is a good idea. In a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed, fire department assistant chief Patrick Butler argues that the helipads have been proven to help firefighters save lives. "The faster firefighters can get to where a fire is burning in a high-rise, the faster they can control and contain it, stopping it from spreading through the building and saving lives," Butler writes. "Relying on internal elevators or on climbing hundreds of flights of stairs is certainly one option, but why limit our abilities?"
One reason could be money. "It's a considerable amount of money to put a helipad on the top of a building. It could be anywhere between $250,000 to $1 million, depending on what you're doing and how high the building is," Hatzikian says. "And people are looking at spending that money somewhere else. Putting in exciting rooftops, a park, different features."
Gensler itself is looking at how the revised rules may affect one of its major projects downtown, a complex of towers known as Metropolis. The two buildings of its first phase, a 19-story hotel and a 38-story residential tower, broke ground earlier this year. Though Hatzikian says it's too late to turn their flat tops into spires or some other sort of skyline exclamation point, her team is already thinking about whether the alternative safety measures can be put in place to enable them to eliminate the helipads that are currently in the plan and replace them with rooftop amenities for people rather than helicopters.
She says that other projects in earlier phases of development are likely to be able to make much more significant changes to their architectural designs. She foresees a more exciting skyline across L.A., from spires to massive antenna structures to observation decks. "Who knows? It's limitless," she says. "It's up to the architects' and designers' creativity. And, of course, how much the developer wants to spend on it."
Any change to a building design is going to have to square with the developer's planned return on investment, says land use consultant Kate Bartolo. She's representing a handful of high-rise projects in downtown L.A., and says the plans are already responding to the rule change. One, a 38-story podium-and-tower condo project on Main Street called SB Omega and designed by L.A.-based David Takacs Architecture, will turn its now-available rooftop into a playground for residents. "You'll have landscaping, trees, a barbecue pit, a fire pit, fountains, indoor seating, a pool, a spa, more seating, another barbecue pit and fire pit," Bartolo says.
She says that given the pace of getting entitlements and finalizing development deals, it'll take a good three years before new shapes start peppering the skyline. In the meantime, though, it will be existing buildings that will start to see changes. She says she wouldn't be surprised if building owners start tearing out their helipads and replacing them with penthouses or rooftop pools.
Hatzikian says that's overdue. Many of the helipads on buildings in L.A. aren't even useful anymore, she says. As the weight of modern helicopters has steadily increased over the years—one model used by the fire department can weigh roughly 15,000 pounds—they've become too heavy to safely land on older helipads that were designed for lighter weights. She says building owners with those older helipads will be quick to want to remove them and open up that rooftop space. "That’s real estate sitting doing nothing. So it could have a different use," Hatzikian says.