Fire Fighting Fire: The Story of the Struggle to Build West Hollywood’s Fire Station No. 7

Fire Station No. 7 on San Vicente Boulevard

Los Angeles County greatly improved the fire protection services it provides West Hollywood with the opening of a new Fire Station No. 7 at San Vicente Boulevard and Cynthia Street in 2001. The showcase five-level firehouse could hold six fire engines, compared with the 76-year-old single-story brick building it replaced a few blocks away that housed one truck.

But the glitzy new Station No. 7, with its redwood and glass trim, was millions of dollars over budget, two-and-a-half years behind schedule and came with a long list of problems to boot. The reason: An eight-year feud between the county and city over design requirements and project management.

There was plenty of finger-pointing by both sides. West Hollywood blamed county fire executives for mismanaging the station’s design and construction. It was so poorly designed, the city claimed, that some fire trucks couldn’t make a right turn out of the driveway at the hilly corner where it’s located with a 45-degree angle on the site.

County officials fired back, saying the city – known for its devotion to style – demanded a fancy, artsy-looking station. Elected city officials were responsible for a series of “finicky” and costly specifications that delayed the much-needed station, the county said. Originally, Fire Station 7 was scheduled to be completed in 1998 for $4 million. The final tab reached $6 million, according to the Los Angeles Times.

At one point during the smoldering dispute, West Hollywood officials threatened to withdraw from the county’s fire protection district altogether. City leaders questioned whether they should end their contract with Los Angeles County and seek those services from other cities, most notably neighboring Beverly Hills or the City of Los Angeles.

County fire officials, for their part, were quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying “They will be glad to help (West Hollywood) find somebody new to fight its fires if that’s what the city wants.” West Hollywood’s contract with the county for fire protection was valued at $6.3 million annually, the newspaper reported.

The issue was important because West Hollywood relies in large part on contractors for vital city services. As recently as 2016, David Warren’s WEHO by the Numbers said the city spends some $50 million a year for contracted services.

Firing Things Up

A new fire station was initially proposed in 1986. Construction began in October 1997, replacing a station at 958 Hancock Ave. built in 1927. The new site was chosen after city and county officials received extensive input from residents, City Councilman Paul Koretz said.

“Better late than never,” Koretz said. Officials said the project’s $4-million cost would be shared by the city and the county fire district. Construction was expected to be completed by June 1998.

Both sides agree that what started out as a joint venture left them feeling badly burned. At the outset, West Hollywood said it contributed $2 million to the county “as an incentive to advance Fire Station No. 7’s ranking on the County’s (fire station) replacement schedule.”

But by February 2000, the situation had gone up in flames, leading the city to issue a scathing news release. “Tragically, the extensive construction delay resulting from the county’s failure to manage the project has eliminated any potential benefit the city would have received from their $2 million investment,” it stated. “Under the Fire District’s management, the project has faced numerous construction cost overruns bringing the construction phase to a cost of more than $4 million, double the original County construction budget of $2 million,” the release continued. “It is also estimated that the project will be completed more than two-and-a-half years behind schedule.

“The city has determined that the project has serious design flaws that range from unusable living space, to unusable emergency poles and an emergency vehicle driveway that has a six-inch curb that does not provide proper egress from the station. In addition, numerous ‘luxury’ amenities were added to the project such as Wolf Kitchen Ranges and Sub-Zero refrigeration units that added to the cost overruns.”

Then-Mayor John Heilman threatened legal action against the county in the news release. “Unfortunately the Fire District’s inability to complete the project on time has left the citizens of West Hollywood at risk since the current fire station is substandard and seismically unsafe. As a result, we must pursue legal action to evict the county and its agents from the project and work to complete the project on its own,” the release notes.

He added that the City Council at its next meeting would explore legal action to recoup its initial investment, as well as initiating steps to withdraw from the Los Angeles County Fire District.

Others pointed out the new station was built on a 45-degree angle so that its front doors opened directly into the middle of a major intersection. The oddly angled firetruck exit required engines to make a partial U-turn in the intersection to turn right onto Cynthia Street. The front driveway was positioned in a way that some feared would funnel rainstorm runoff down San Vicente from the nearby Sunset Strip directly into the station. (The Times noted that a new storm drain planned for the street should solve the problem, officials said.)

City officials also listed what they saw as other design flaws, such as the fact that slide poles connecting the firefighters’ upstairs quarters with the fire truck bay were installed in the path of overhead garage doors. City Manager Paul Arevalo added that the station “has bathrooms you literally have to stand on the toilet seat to close the door – it’s that tight a squeeze.” The Times further quoted him as saying that “some of the desks in the firefighters’ quarters are only three inches deep; some personal lockers are a mere six inches wide.”

County fire officials tried to drown the city’s complaints, asserting that “West Hollywood demanded a fancy, showplace fire station on a difficult, sloping site with such unusual touches as a copper roof and underground parking for firemen’s personal cars,” the Times reported. It notes that firefighters grumbled that “the design of the subterranean garage left the station with a permanent tilt that could send fire engines accidentally rolling into San Vicente Blvd. unless special wheel blocks were used every time trucks pull into the station.”

Fire officials denied that luxurious appliances were purchased, adding that the improperly positioned fire poles were removed and a replacement pole was poked through the ceiling in another room near the firetrucks.

County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman promised the other design problems would be ironed out before the station opened by its mid-May 2001 target date, newspaper articles show. Freeman said the station exit driveway would be redesigned to allow for easy turns by all of the county’s trucks. Vehicles assigned to the West Hollywood area already were able to make the sharp turn east on Cynthia, he said.

According to Freeman, rainy weather delayed the project at its start. He said the county, not West Hollywood, was footing the bill for all cost overruns, even though some costs were the city’s fault. “The glass storefront windows, the all-glass apparatus windows, the redwood trim, the balcony artwork were requested by the city,” he said.

The county fire department also began taking steps to terminate the station’s contractor and asked county supervisors for another $600,000 to hire a new crew to finish the work. And much to the relief of firefighters who would be moving into the place, fire officials also disclosed they would hire professional window washers to clean the glitzy expanse of second-story windows in the showplace station. Firefighters normally clean windows at county fire stations. “If West Hollywood follows through with its threat to use another fire department,” Freeman joked, maybe “Beverly Hills can bear that expense.”

All’s Well That Ends

With plenty of backup fire engines standing by, authorities finally extinguished the embers of an eight-year dispute over a new fire station in West Hollywood with its opening in May 2001. City and county leaders peacefully marked the completion.

“It’s a day I never thought we’d see. But we’re here,” county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky told a crowd of firefighters and local residents at the new station. “I think the city of West Hollywood has made a wise decision to contract with us.” Yaroslavsky helped broker the truce between the city and the Fire Department. All problems were forgotten as the two sides joined for ceremonial ribbon and cake cuttings. Fire officials said a redesigned doorway allowed right-hand turns by fire engines. And modifications to the living quarters were continuing.

“It’s still a bit of a work in process,” said Station 7 Capt. Mark Viles. Yaroslavsky – who helped find $600,000 used to finish the station – sat between then-Mayor Jeffrey Prang and Chief Freeman. Freeman described the station as “an artistic statement for the city.” Prang said the city had dropped its lawsuit plans and the idea of contracting elsewhere for fire protection. He pronounced himself “grateful that you’re here serving our city.”

Friday’s opening ended with the city’s presentation of a plaque for a steel sculpture above the firehouse entrance. Its name: “Where Fire Meets Water.”

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4 years ago

Thanks for filling us in on the fascinating story of our fire station. I remember first seeing the building just before it’s completion when I would visit in my college years, & admiring the unique aesthetics of the building when construction was completed. By the time I moved to town just over a decade ago, all of the controversy had long-since subsided. Consequently, my only experience with the building has been admiring the building’s aesthetics while simultaneously pondering the logic of it’s seemingly illogical location. Overall, I’m glad that everything seems to have worked out for the best and that… Read more »

Great Design
Great Design
4 years ago

Nice article Bob Bishop. Do you happen to know who the eventual design team was?

Miraculously this fire station has aesthetic design value far superior to many of the nearby recently built projects. It has a resonance with the past and nod to the future.
And as far as luxury appliances, the firefighters deserve top of the line accommodations.

Drew Pokorny
Drew Pokorny
4 years ago

Thank you again for great pieces like this. As a 19 year resident I’ve invested my life in this great village of ours. Knowing our past allows us to be better stewards going forward.

carleton croninc
4 years ago

How well I recall a visit to the station-in-progress when I worked with LACFD on other issues. One would think that children were the interior designers, planning a fun-house. As mentioned in the article, doors were placed where they could not fully open, the pole positioned where it could not be used. It resembles a fortress more than an artistic edifice – but, as long as it works. Those were also the days when Joh Heilman’s hair was of a darker shade, before the grey appeared with the project.

Anther good item from our unofficial city historian, Bob Bishop.

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