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Los Angeles Times

Monday December 8, 2014

Mayor Garcetti Proposes Sweeping Retrofits Of Concrete, Wood Buildings

By Rong-Gong Lin II, Rosanna Xia
 

Mayor Eric Garcetti , left, proposed the most ambitious seismic safety regulations in California history Monday. U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Lucy Jones, right, has been acting as Garcetti’s science advisor on this effort. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on Monday proposed the most ambitious seismic safety regulations in California history — rules that would require owners to retrofit thousands of buildings most at risk of collapse during a major earthquake..

In making his recommendations, Garcetti targeted two of the riskiest types of structures built in Los Angeles before 1980: concrete buildings and multi-story ones made of wood that rest on top of weak first floors.

Both kinds of buildings are found across the city and include rows of mid-rise concrete office towers and condos in downtown, Hollywood and Mid-Wilshire, as well as midcentury wood apartment buildings set on skinny supports atop carports.

The mayor's plan calls for thousands of wood buildings to be retrofitted within five years and hundreds of concrete buildings to be strengthened within 30 years.

Only a few California cities have ordered mandatory retrofits for these types of buildings because of the cost. Concrete building retrofits can cost from the tens of thousands of dollars to more than $1 million for large office and residential buildings. The cost of retrofitting a modest wood apartment building ranges from $60,000 to $130,000.

Garcetti acknowledged the financial burdens the regulations would bring but said the cost of doing nothing would be far worse and would hobble Los Angeles' economy for decades. A crippling Los Angeles quake would have national consequences, damaging the home of the largest container and cargo port in the nation, according to a report released by the mayor and U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Lucy Jones, who has been acting as Garcetti's science advisor on this effort.

"The time for a plan for retrofits is now," the mayor said. "I think at the beginning of this, there was a hesitance — you know, 'Why don't we just do a general recommendation? No mandates.' But to me, that was unacceptable."

The mayor's move follows a Los Angeles Times report last year that found, by the most conservative estimate, that as many as 50 of the more than 1,000 old concrete buildings in the city would collapse in a major earthquake, exposing thousands to injury or death. Concrete buildings have collapsed in past L.A. earthquakes, including Olive View Medical Center in Sylmar in 1971 and a Kaiser medical office in 1994. More than 130 people died when two concrete buildings came down in the magnitude 6.3 earthquake that struck Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2011.

Nearly 8,000 people could be in commercial concrete buildings that suffer partial or total collapse if a magnitude 7.8 earthquake strikes the San Andreas fault in Southern California during business hours, Jones said.

Garcetti is also targeting so-called "soft-story" wood buildings, the type that killed 16 people at the Northridge Meadows apartment complex when the upper floors collapsed on the ground floor. About 49,000 housing units were destroyed in the Northridge earthquake, and 280,000 more could be lost in a catastrophic quake, Garcetti said.

Los Angeles officials have known about the dangers of these buildings for decades, but concerns about costs killed earlier efforts to identify and order property owners to retrofit their buildings. Owners have said they shouldn't have to pay for expensive fixes on their own and have lobbied for low-interest loans, tax breaks and other incentives.

Tenants are concerned they would shoulder the entire retrofit bill through higher rents, despite already living in a high-cost city.

The mayor offered some suggestions, such as business tax breaks for those who retrofit buildings; a five-year exemption from the city's business tax for firms that move into newly retrofitted buildings; and helping owners of wood buildings get access to private lenders. The mayor also said he was open to creating protections for low-income tenants.

Garcetti is also proposing sweeping plans to protect aqueducts that supply L.A. with water and ensure firefighters won't be left helpless by ruptured pipes as fires burn through neighborhoods. The mayor calls for the creation of a backup water delivery system for firefighters, modeled after the network San Francisco built after the 1906 earthquake and restored on the orders of then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein just before 1989's Loma Prieta earthquake.

The mayor is also seeking to beef up the city's communications network so Angelenos won't be left without phone or Internet connections after a quake. Parts of Japan were paralyzed during a recent 9.0 temblor and tsunami. One of Garcetti's proposals includes creating solar-powered wireless Internet access that can be used by residents during emergencies, located at places such as schools, parks and recreation centers.

Los Angeles was once a leader in seismic safety. In the 1980s, it was one of the first cities in California to require retrofitting of brick buildings, a vulnerability that proved devastating in the 1933 Long Beach earthquake. Out of about 8,000 buildings, all but three have since been retrofitted or demolished.

As a result, no one died from brick building damage in the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

But an effort to require retrofitting of concrete and soft-story buildings failed at City Hall in the wake of the Northridge quake.

Several City Council members on Monday expressed support for mandatory retrofits. Some hoped for a statewide bond measure that might help subsidize retrofits.

But even council members who supported mandatory retrofits cautioned that figuring out the details of who would pay would be difficult.

"The question is going to come down to: What are the costs, who pays and how long does it take to pay?" Councilman Gil Cedillo said.

Tenants' rights advocate Larry Gross (executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival) worried that tenants won't be able to afford retrofit-related rent hikes, forcing them to move. "Should tenants pay somewhat? We're open to that, but the question is, how much more can tenants pay? Studies show tenants are already paying unaffordable rents."

Some property owner groups were cautiously optimistic about the mayor's proposal. "It's going to take some finesse to make sure it works for both sides, and we don't want to drive that proverbial wedge between owner and tenant," said Jim Clarke, executive vice president of the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles.

The deadlines for retrofits also generated debate. Beverly Kenworthy of the California Apartment Assn. said it might be unrealistic to get thousands of wood soft-story buildings retrofitted within five years.

Kerry Morrison of the Hollywood Property Owners Alliance called the 30-year deadline for concrete buildings reasonable. "That does give people time to really consider how they're going to finance this," she said.

Councilman Bernard C. Parks said he thought the three-decade deadline was too long, and that the next destructive quake could arrive before then.

Other recommendations in the report include a voluntary rating system for earthquake safety of buildings. A one-star building would mean that a structure would probably cause loss of life; a five-star building would be considered secure. Another suggestion is a law that would require a faster retrofit if a smaller earthquake damages a building.


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