CHAMPAIGN – Twenty-four-year-old Bobbie Seppelt, a University of Illinois graduate student, has lived in five different apartments during her college years, four of them with balconies.
She frankly admits that her current fourth-floor balcony at 408 E. Healey St., C, makes her nervous. She doesn't spend a lot of time on it.
"'The increased height does cause me some concern about going on the balcony," she said, though she notes her apartment building is relatively new and the balcony is made of concrete.
Seppelt said after experiencing college life, with plenty of parties overflowing onto crowded balconies, she's surprised a balcony collapse similar to the one that happened last week in Chicago, where 13 young partygoers died, hasn't happened here.
"I've been in buildings where there's a party, and people are jammed on (the balconies)," she said. "I'm surprised it hasn't happened on campus. A lot of the older buildings I've lived in have had wood balconies and appeared to be somewhat decrepit."
Though it seldom makes headlines, balcony safety is an ongoing concern in Champaign-Urbana, with at least two balcony collapses in the past decade.
It's been a policy issue as well. The Champaign City Council, in a 5-4 straw poll in March 2001, rejected a proposal from staff that the city develop a program, including training seminars for landlords, to deal with safety problems with apartment balconies.
That suggestion came after a June 2000 accident where a second-floor balcony on a building at 105 S. Wright St., C, collapsed and fell onto a car. No one was on the balcony, and no one was injured.
In perhaps the most serious local incident, a third-floor balcony at 705 W. Stoughton St., U, collapsed with between 10 and 18 partygoers on it on Oct. 24, 1993, and at least eight people were injured in the 30-foot fall.
According to Urbana firefighters, the balcony fell onto a second-floor balcony, taking it down as well, and perhaps lessening the impact of the fall.
Among the injuries, a Parkland College student broke his right forearm, a 19-year-old woman suffered a broken bone in her right foot and a 19-year-old man suffered a sprained left ankle.
Esther Patt, director of the University of Illinois Tenant Union, said that since 1998, Campus Property Management of Champaign has had to close, repair or replace balconies in five different Champaign-Urbana buildings.
In some instances, an entire building's balconies were shut down, she said.
Those closures include:
– All of the balconies at an apartment building at 905 Oregon St., U, in August 1998, due to safety concerns.
– All of the balconies at 105 S. Wright St., C, after the balcony collapsed there in June 2000.
– All of the balconies of an apartment building at 405 E. Stoughton St., U, in September 2000.
– Two balconies, closed by Campus Property Management in July 2002, at a building at 103 E. Chalmers St., C. Those two balconies were removed in October 2002 and not replaced until early May 2003, Patt said.
– This past May, a tenant at 48 E. John St., C, awoke to find her balcony being removed by workmen, Patt said.
"We advise people to check landlords' complaint records to see where there have been complaints with buildings, including balcony problems," Patt said.
Michael Jay, director of operations for Campus Property Management, said his company places a high priority on balcony safety.
He said the firm, with 1,600 apartments in Champaign-Urbana, is bound to have occasional problems with balconies, given its sheer size.
"If any of our maintenance people notice anything untoward or signs of deterioration, or if a tenant notices something, it will be investigated," he said.
When the Champaign City Council rejected closer scrutiny of balconies two years ago, they did so despite a report from staff that showed, out of a survey of 900 Campustown apartments, 122 balconies with serious defects, structural failures, moderate defects or evidence of damage, 418 balconies that might have structural deficiencies and 181 balconies that showed minor defects or evidence of repair.
Only 23 percent of the Campustown apartments surveyed had no visible defects, the report said.
Mary Vita Rosmarino, Champaign's property maintenance supervisor, said that virtually all of the balconies cited as having serious defects two years ago have since been repaired.
"We've been extremely fortunate no one has been injured," she said.
In Champaign's case, apartment balconies are not inspected on a systematic basis, while, in Urbana, apartments and their balconies do receive regular inspections, though it generally takes several years to inspect all of the city's apartments – meaning an apartment can go several years between inspections.
Rosmarino said Champaign balconies are inspected when her office receives a complaint, generally from a tenant, or when a city inspector notices a problem or there is a structural failure. She said her office makes about 200 apartment inspections annually at tenants' request.
Both cities require that a balcony, when it is constructed, be capable of supporting 100 pounds of live load per square foot and that an architect or engineer certify the plans.
One problem with checking balconies, Rosmarino said, is that sometimes the supports of a balcony are covered with stucco or siding and can't be seen.
Two Champaign City Council members who voted against having city staff develop an enhanced balcony safety program say they still believe they made the right choice, despite the Chicago tragedy.
Council member Tom Bruno, who represented some of the victims of the Urbana balcony collapse in a civil lawsuit, said he thinks a balcony safety program would increase the cost of housing and would be prohibitively expensive for landlords.
"We don't go out and inspect 900 automobiles, or 900 kitchen stoves or 900 electrical systems," Bruno said. "It's reactionary legislation."
Council member Jim Green said he also believes an inspection program would be burdensome and expensive, requiring the use of a structural engineer.
"I don't know that it would enhance safety," Green said. "My thought is this: We need to be vigilant up front when buildings are built and make sure they're up to code."
Council member Kathy Ennen, who supported an inspection program two years ago, said she thinks the issue – along with the entire issue of apartment safety – should be revisited.
"Certainly the balcony issue remains a cause of concern as we look around the city, and I hope it gets brought back up," she said.
"We have thousands and thousands of parents who send their children to the cities of Champaign and Urbana to go the University of Illinois, who have a reasonable expectation their children will be living in reasonably safe conditions. I think the inspection of balconies is a reasonable thing to do to meet those expectations.
"One collapse and one death: What if it was your kid? It's the prudent thing, and the right thing, to do."
Ennen said she would like to see an appropriate balcony occupancy standard set.
Area landlords asked to attend to maintenance
As a structural engineer, Keith Brandau is a little more cautious than most when he ventures onto a balcony.
Brandau, who works for Frauenhoffer & Associates of Champaign, said he first looks over a balcony carefully. He'll check for signs of rotting wood or water damage. If a balcony is made of concrete, he'll look for signs of cracking near the wall. He'll check to see if a balcony is leaning downward.
He's also more reluctant to go out on a balcony if it is overloaded with people, though, theoretically, a well-designed and constructed balcony should be able to hold a large number of people.
"I'm always cautious because of what I do now," he said. "If I thought something was overloaded, I would warn people, and I have. I wouldn't go out if it was crowded."
Tenants who find those conditions on their balconies should contact city building safety officials and ask to have the balcony inspected, he said.
Brandau said he personally believes balconies should be inspected "on a fairly frequent basis," because when they fail, the collapses "are often sudden and fatal."
Brandau said if it were up to him, he wouldn't allow any balconies in Champaign-Urbana unless they had redundant, or two, support systems. For example, a cantilevered balcony supported by floor joists should also, he believes, be supported by a second system, such as posts in the ground.
"Cantilevered balconies stick out without any other visible means of support," Brandau said. "If you got rid of cantilevered balconies, you're going to save some lives. I fully believe that."
Scott Kunkel, an architect with JSM Management, which has over 700 apartments in Champaign-Urbana, said the key to having safe balconies, assuming they're built to code, is regular maintenance.
"Any balcony, no matter how well constructed, will deteriorate without regular maintenance," he said.
Water is the real enemy of balconies, he said. If cracks in concrete aren't repaired, water will get into the cracks and make them worse. Wood balconies can rot if water doesn't properly drain off.
Kunkel said JSM maintenance people look for signs of deterioration on balconies "pretty much every day."
Champaign Building Safety Supervisor Garry Bowman agrees that maintenance of balconies is paramount.
"Due to wear and tear and the natural life span, a balcony is going to need periodic maintenance from time to time," he said. "Some folks are very diligent about it, and other folks aren't so good about it."
Esther Patt, director of the Champaign-Urbana Tenant Union and University of Illinois Tenant Union, said some landlords responded to the serious 1993 collapse of a balcony in Urbana by putting into apartment leases the requirement that no more than two people can be on a balcony at any one time.
"That's so restrictive as to not be reasonable," she said. "People ignore it."
You can reach Mike Monson at (217) 351-5370 or via e-mail at email@example.com.