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Mayor Garcetti's quake retrofit plan draws cautious early support

Prominent business, property owners have grown favorable toward Mayor Garcetti's new quake retrofit proposal

Over the last two decades, Los Angeles City Hall showed little interest in proposals that would force property owners to strengthen the thousands of buildings in the city vulnerable to collapse in a major earthquake.

But Mayor Eric Garcetti's new seismic safety push is shaping up to be different, at least in the early stages of the campaign.

This time around, there is much wider support for retrofitting on the City Council. And even prominent property owners and business groups have changed their tone.

"We're generally very encouraged," said Carol Schatz, president of the Central City Assn., which represents downtown business interests.

Ten years ago, she warned that a retrofit requirement could put property owners out of business. She now says the mayor's proposal for a 30-year deadline to retrofit old concrete buildings seems more reasonable, "because it gives property owners sufficient time to comply."

It's too early to say whether the mayor's proposals will be adopted without a fight. His plans would require owners to pay for costly retrofits, which could be as much as $130,000 for wooden apartments and millions for taller concrete buildings. Key details are still being worked out, including whether owners would get any financial support.

But in a city that has long pushed back on mandatory retrofitting as too expensive, the shift in tone is notable.

Some credit the aggressive outreach to businesses and property owner groups by U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Lucy Jones, who the mayor brought on last year as his earthquake advisor. She has held more than 150 meetings and offered blunt forecasts about how devastated L.A. would be after a major quake.

One talk was titled "Imagine America Without Los Angeles."

The Times reported in 2013 that as many as 50 of the more than 1,000 concrete buildings across the city would collapse in a big earthquake. University researchers last January gave city officials a preliminary list of old concrete buildings.

So-called "soft-story" wooden apartment buildings have gotten more attention as cities such as San Francisco began requiring owners to retrofit them. L.A. building officials are completing an inventory of the thousands of wooden buildings that might need strengthening.

Jim Clarke of the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles initially preferred a voluntary retrofitting law. But after a few meetings, he said he had a change of heart.

"I think we learned that it probably needed to be mandated," he said. "We knew deep down that it needed to be done."

The Hollywood Property Owners Alliance has started explaining to its members why the city is making retrofitting a big priority.

But Executive Director Kerry Morrison said she worries about the price tag and that owners would lose tenants during disruptive retrofits.

"Trying to finance something like this on your own could be very daunting, and certainly we don't want to see people put out of business trying to comply," Morrison said. "We've been working for almost two decades to revitalize an area that had been suffering economically, and we don't want to lose the vitality."

Hollywood has been the center of much debate on quake safety. Some of the area's landmark buildings are on top of the Hollywood earthquake fault zone, according to a Times visualization of a new fault map released by the state.

During her meetings, Jones said she explained that failure to retrofit vulnerable buildings would be catastrophic in the event of a huge quake.

The dangers of concrete buildings have been known since the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, when hospital buildings were destroyed. Wooden buildings with weak first floors are also a well-known risk: this type of structure killed 16 people when the upper floors of the Northridge Meadows apartment complex pancaked onto the ground floor in the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Economically, larger quakes could shut down entire commercial districts if many unretrofitted buildings collapse.

"They've always known about the costs of doing the retrofit. I helped them see the costs of not doing the retrofit," Jones said. "You're not going to earn any money after the earthquake if we don't deal with these solutions."

Jones' barnstorming has not erased all concerns.

Some are worried about the burden on tenants, who under current law could see their rents go up as much as $75 a month to pay for retrofit costs in an already high-rent city.

A huge rent increase could "undermine the mayor's efforts to bring more shared prosperity in the city," Councilman Gil Cedillo said. "If you raise somebody's wage, and then at the same time you raise their rent, you kind of frustrate the whole point."

"Should tenants pay somewhat? We're open to that, but the question is, how much more can we pay?" asked tenant rights advocate Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival.

And there are still some who are strongly opposed to mandatory measures.

"Would you want to make an investment that takes 20 years to get back?" said Dan Faller, head of the Apartment Owners Assn. of California in Los Angeles.

Property owner groups have suggested ways to ease the financial burden of retrofitting. The mayor offered a number of ideas, such as giving tax breaks to commercial tenants who move into retrofitted buildings and protecting low-income tenants from large rent increases.

"We don't want to lose tenants," Clarke said. "We're trying to find as many ways to subsidize a retrofit so we don't have to rely on the pass-through to tenants because it would be just too much to bear."

Councilman Tom LaBonge, who suggested a statewide bond measure, said there was no question whether unsafe buildings should be retrofitted. "We have to do it," he said. "The question is how do we do it?"

L.A. was once considered a leader in retrofitting, managing to get property owners to strengthen or demolish thousands of unreinforced brick buildings after the 1971 quake. But after the Northridge quake, a plan to require concrete building retrofits died. Proposals from former Councilman Greig Smith a decade ago also didn't go far.

The politics were different as recently as a year ago, when even supporters like Councilman Mitchell Englander said it would be "political suicide" to make retrofits mandatory without first coming up with some financial incentives. He has been working on getting Sacramento to approve a bill that would give owners a break on property taxes once they complete a retrofit.

Englander recently said the mayor's proposals were "a terrific blueprint, and it's way overdue for the city."

Others support the mayor's efforts but wonder whether the proposed five-year retrofit timeline for the city's thousands of wooden apartment buildings is realistic. Beverly Kenworthy of the California Apartment Assn. said she would be raising these concerns but said the proposed timeline "does send a message that the mayor is serious about this."

Councilman Bernard C. Parks thinks the mayor's 30-year timeline for concrete buildings is too generous. He also said debating the financial concerns just further delays getting the buildings retrofitted, and the Big One could strike at any moment.

"I hope we won't get bogged down trying to create financing plans for businesses," Parks said. "I would think that if you own property, whether it's a concrete building or an apartment, you are responsible for keeping it running safe and sound."

The City Council will take up the issue Wednesday, when Jones is scheduled to present the mayor's ambitious proposals to the council.

rosanna.xia@latimes.com

ron.lin@latimes.com

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