The iconic London Terrace Towers is one of the biggest co-ops in the city, with 700 units and a dominating presence in West Chelsea. It is also in the middle of a new and growing debate about banning e-bikes from residential properties due to fear about them sparking fires.
The number of fires started by the lithium-ion batteries that power these now ubiquitous vehicles has spiked to nearly 200 so far this year, way up from 44 just two years ago, according to the FDNY.
Last month an executive from Douglas Elliman, the management company for London Terrace Towers, appeared before the co-op’s board and advised it to adopt a ban that would likely require anyone who owns this kind of vehicle to remove it from the building.
For board member Gary Roth, a 57-year-old transportation planner who uses an e-bike to get around town, that would be an overreaction.
“I own an e-bike. I’m an avid cyclist. I think it’s draconian to ban a form of transportation as if people want to bring bombs into their house,” Roth said. “Everything is based on this 200 number. Everything is based on fear. Everyone saw the news story about the high-rise fire. Everyone wants to avoid that.”
Douglas Elliman’s recommendation followed the raging fire last month at a luxury high-rise apartment building on East 52nd Street, called Rivercourt, that injured 38 people. The FDNY blamed the blaze on e-bike batteries charging inside a 20th floor apartment. Since then, the push to ban these devices and their potentially volatile batteries from indoor residential spaces has taken off.
Days after that fire, Glenwood Properties, which manages thousands of luxury apartments in 25 buildings — all but one in Manhattan — notified tenants that the devices would be banned forthwith.
Douglas Elliman, which made its recommendation to London Terrace Towers, manages 56,000 units in 380 buildings citywide, and it’s likely it’s making the same suggestion at their other properties. (Elliman did not return THE CITY’s calls seeking comment.)
Last summer, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) had proposed banning the devices from its 170,000 apartments after 31 e-bike fires took place at NYCHA developments in the last two years. That included one in August that killed a young girl and her mother’s boyfriend. Three e-bikes were found inside the unit where that fire started.
And it’s not just apartment managers taking action. Fordham University recently sent out a notice to students advising that e-bikes and e-scooters are banned from campus. A long list of prohibited items at Columbia University which already includes hoverboards and e-scooters, would likely apply to e-bikes as well, a Columbia spokesperson said.
Steven Sladkus’s law firm Schwartz Sladkus Reich Greenberg Atlas LLP advises co-op and condo boards in 300 buildings. He says that since the Rivercourt fire, he’s been inundated with calls from boards and property management companies asking how to legally ban the devices from apartment buildings.
“Amending your governing documents isn’t always the easiest thing to do because it requires a vote,” Sladkus said. “The stopgap is amending the house rules in a co-op or rules and regulations in a condo, which typically can be done by the boards themselves. Once that’s done, and amendments are sent to the owners to put them on notice of the rule, one would hope and expect that all owners would in fact comply.”
It’s the Batteries
Through mid-November this year, the fire department says 191 fires linked to lithium-ion batteries across the city have resulted in 79 injuries and four deaths. Fire officials note that once the batteries explode, the resultant fire is very difficult to put out and accelerates quickly.
The cause of a massive fire Tuesday at an NYPD warehouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn, is still unknown. Fire marshals are investigating whether it may have been triggered or fueled by lithium-ion batteries stored there. NYPD Chief of Department Jeffrey Maddrey said Tuesday that e-bikes were present and the fire appeared to have started on a shelf.
But while bans are targeting bikes and other small vehicles, it’s their batteries that are causing the fires.
The city fire department, which has been warning about this growing threat for the last two years, says the fires are generally triggered by overused, improperly maintained batteries that overheat and explode while charging. Batteries that are rated by a nationally recognized product safety entity such as UL and properly maintained and charged are safe, they say.
Which is why the FDNY has yet to take the position that the e-bikes and e-scooters that rely on these batteries should be banned from residential properties altogether. During a recent City Council hearing on battery safety, Councilmember Robert Holden (D-Queens) asked point-blank if the FDNY would recommend against indoor charging of any micromobility device, such as an e-bike or e-scooter.
“That’s a complicated issue because it does straddle that line,” responded Thomas Currao, the FDNY’s acting chief of fire prevention. “We want it to be safe, but we understand that it has a legitimate use.”
The Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) has not taken a position on the bans, but has advised its property-owning members about safe practices regarding indoor storage and charging of e-bikes, according to spokesperson Chris Santarelli.
NYCHA first floated its proposed ban last summer, with tenants and the public given a chance to respond through September. But 10 weeks after the comment period closed, NYCHA has yet to take a position on the proposal it first made in July.
THE CITY recently found that most of these fires are not happening in luxury Manhattan apartment buildings or co-ops like Rivercourt or London Terrace but in modest multi-unit apartment buildings, particularly in lower-income zip codes in The Bronx and Brooklyn.
At London Terrace Towers, co-op board member Roth said the board will vote on the ban at a meeting next week. But he questions why it’s necessary to ban the devices when it’s the batteries that are the actual potential threat.
Roth acknowledges the complexities involved in buildings enforcing rules telling residents who store and charge e-bike and e-scooters in their units to only rely on safe UL-rated batteries and to properly maintain and charge those batteries.
“The problem was, who is going to do the enforcement,” he said. “We have a doorman. If I buy another battery and it’s not UL-rated, the doorman’s not going to know. If these things are bombs, the only way to stop the bombs is to make them stay out of the buildings.”
“I have the feeling the board is going to ban them,” Roth said.