Hollywood skyscraper critics question quake risk for project

Opponents of the Millennium Hollywood project said Tuesday that they disagreed with the city's approval of the developer’s seismic studies, which found that no active earthquake fault runs under the property.

The studies, completed for the city by Millennium’s geologist, concluded an earthquake fault was probably located deep beneath the property but that it was too old to be considered active.

State geology officials last year reached a different conclusion: An active fault slices through part of the project site, according to the state’s official zoning map of the Hollywood fault released in November.  

George Abrahams, a community activist who opposes the development, questioned the city’s approval. He is reviewing the latest geology reports, he said, and will continue to fight the project.

“When the state is saying A, and the city is saying B, they can’t both be right,” Abrahams said. “Someone has to be wrong. And I trust the state geologist.”

Abrahams and others from the community have legally challenged the project. This spring, the project was put on hold after a Los Angeles County court found that the city of L.A. failed to fully assess how the $1-billion development would affect traffic and surrounding neighborhoods. The ruling prevents the city from granting building permits for the project, pending whether the developer drafts a new environmental impact report.

Philip Aarons, a founder of Millennium Partners, pledged to continue the effort to build the project, which would replace parking and rental car lots next to the Capitol Records tower.

"Millennium Hollywood remains firmly committed to building a project that will preserve the iconic Capitol Records building and revitalize Hollywood’s historic Downtown, doing so in a manner that conforms to the highest earthquake resiliency standards," Aarons said in a statement.

California law defines faults that ruptured within the last 11,000 years as active. The Hollywood fault was forced into the spotlight in 2013, when the L.A. City Council approved the Millennium project even after state officials said the project might be in an active earthquake fault zone.

Under state law, developers in the fault zone are generally required to prove that new buildings can be constructed safely away from any active faults.

The final say over whether a structure can be built lies with city building officials, who must determine whether a developer has done sufficient underground study.

State officials this week said the city's approval does not change their documentation of the Hollywood fault. Tim McCrink, who manages the state's Alquist-Priolo Earthquake Fault Zoning program, said the law worked the way it was supposed to.

"The zone maps have done exactly what they're intended to do -- focus the attention on where we think the faults lie," he said. "It's in the city of L.A.'s hands at this point."

Abrahams, who lives in the Hollywood Hills north of the project, said giving city building officials the final say is a “weakness in the law.” There should be an additional level of review, he said.

Robert P. Silverstein, the lawyer representing Millennium’s opponents, said the city’s approval despite the state geologist’s conclusion last year was “disappointing but ultimately not surprising.” He cited the city’s approval of the developer’s previous seismic studies.

"Now their fallback argument is that the fault is not active,” Silverstein said.

Studies by Millennium's geotechnical consultant, Group Delta, showed that there probably is a fault under the property that roughly follows the path indicated on the state's zoning map. However, contrary to the state's conclusions, the studies showed that the "inferred" fault was estimated to be at least 150,000 years old. 

City building officials in June agreed with this conclusion, which was also reviewed by a third-party firm, Earth Consultants International.

As a precaution, two corners of the Millennium site are restricted from construction because the studies did not extend beyond the property boundary.

"Construction of buildings within these setback zones will be considered if additional geologic exploration is conducted and the areas are found to be free from active faults," according to the approval letter by the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety.

Group Delta has also completed detailed seismic studies under three nearby properties, including the site of the former KFWB radio studio. Working on all four properties was like piecing together a "geological jigsaw puzzle," said Michael Reader, the company's chief executive, adding that the firm was able to reach its conclusions only because it had access to study all the locations at the same time.

Group Delta did find minor faults under the two properties across the street from the Millennium and KFWB sites, but tests showed these faults were also too old to be considered active.

City building officials have also approved these seismic studies in recent months. Officials specified that during construction, the projects' engineering geologists must observe all excavations to verify there are no active faults under the properties.

"If evidence of active faulting is observed, the Grading Division shall be notified immediately," the approval letters said.

Follow @RosannaXia for more news about seismic safety. 

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