L.A. Mayor Garcetti's earthquake safety campaign faces obstacles

Mayor Eric Garcetti faces obstacles in building support for an ambitious seismic safety upgrade

When Eric Garcetti took office as Los Angeles mayor 18 months ago, skeptics questioned whether he was setting civic ambitions too low by promising to improve street paving, tree trimming, sidewalk repairs and trash pickup.

But with his recent rollout of a plan to invest billions of dollars in seismic safety projects, Garcetti set his sights on a legacy that would go well beyond the small-scale accomplishments of a self-described back-to-basics mayor. The vast three-decade spending program would strengthen the city's capacity to survive and recover from the sort of catastrophic earthquake that modern Los Angeles has yet to experience, most likely with a major rupture of the San Andreas fault.


Earthquake safety: In the Dec. 24 California section, an article about obstacles to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti's earthquake safety efforts said that Lucy Jones is a Caltech seismologist. She is with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Now comes the tough part.

In the months and years ahead, Garcetti will need to overcome a series of obstacles to build political support for what would be the costliest earthquake safety measures in city history. Potential snags abound as various pieces of the proposal go before the City Council, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature, elected leaders from across the region, telecommunications companies, utilities and — not least — millions of California voters.

"It's going to demand a lot of persistence," said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.

Tenants and landlords, two of the most potent constituencies in city elections, are already clashing over who should bear the cost of Garcetti's proposed mandatory upgrades to thousands of buildings at risk of collapse in a major quake.

Under current law, landlords can pass 100% of the cost to tenants by collecting rent surcharges of up to $75 a month until all the retrofitting costs are recovered. Garcetti's proposal would continue to allow landlords to pass along those expenses.

"We've got major concerns about this," said tenant advocate Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival. "It doesn't seem equitable."

Renters' groups fear widespread displacement of residents who can't afford the extra rent, particularly those in wood-frame buildings with weak first floors over carports — a key source of low-income housing in Los Angeles.

Gross and other tenant leaders are pressing the council — in an election year — for greater cost protections for renters.

Garcetti, a longtime ally of tenants, said he shares their concerns and is open to compromise. "We don't want to displace tenants," he said. At the same time, he added, thousands of rent-stabilized apartments could be destroyed by a major quake if safety upgrades aren't made.

Over the last year, Garcetti has sought advice and support from building owners, utilities, emergency planners and others. One key concession he made was to give owners of as many as 1,500 brittle concrete buildings built before 1980 30 years to finish their retrofits. Those buildings include apartment towers and office high-rises that would have to be vacated during renovations — adding to owners' financial burdens.

"This was a recognition that you can't completely put people out of business," Garcetti said of the extended time frame.

Owners welcomed that concession, but said the five-year mandate for strengthening smaller wood-frame buildings that have weak first floors was too short. Jim Clarke, executive vice president of the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles, said many owners, especially older mom-and-pop landlords, would be unable to finish upgrades that quickly.

Building owners hope to get some taxpayer support — or at a minimum government guarantees on low-interest loans. But in an era of tight budgets, they could face pushback, particularly given the value that seismic retrofits can add to their property.

"If you have the wherewithal to own a large concrete structure that brings in revenue, why would the city subsidize your business to help you upgrade it and sell it at a higher rate than you bought it?" said City Councilman Bernard C. Parks.

Hal Bernson, a former city councilman who led the fight during the 1970s and 1980s to mandate seismic upgrades of older brick buildings, recalled fierce opposition from property owners. It's "human nature to resist anything that's going to cost money," he said.

"The mayor is getting out in front of this thing, and I think it's a very good thing," Bernson said. "A lot of these buildings are very, very dangerous."

For the most part, the council's initial reaction to Garcetti's proposals has been favorable, but legislative details remain to be worked out.

In a recent report, Resilience by Design, Garcetti's seismic safety task force was blunt in describing the calamity that might befall the city as a result of a magnitude 7.8 quake on the San Andreas fault lasting two minutes — not the worst temblor scientists expect in Los Angeles.

Beyond hundreds of deaths from destroyed buildings, ruptured gas, power and water lines could lead to "super-conflagrations" that consume whole neighborhoods, the report says.

"In our model, the fires kill as many people as the earthquake," said Caltech seismologist Lucy Jones, the Garcetti advisor whose blunt risk assessments have been a political asset as the mayor pushes his initiative.

Breaks in core utility lines that cross the San Andreas fault could delay recovery, as could the loss of phone and Internet service, the report found. With perhaps $213 billion in losses, the region's economy could sink into long-term depression, as San Francisco's did after the great quake of 1906.

"This is not just about recovering," Garcetti said. "This is about whether L.A. is still around as we know it."

Garcetti can enact some of his proposal by executive action, including a rating system that would give the public a grade on the seismic safety of buildings and, the mayor hopes, encourage retrofits. He has begun negotiating an agreement among telecommunications companies to provide temporary Wi-Fi after a major quake.

But most of Garcetti's plan requires large sums of money. The building retrofits alone will cost more than $1 billion, according to Jones.

Installation of more resilient water pipes could cost several billion more, depending on how aggressive the city gets about fixing a deteriorating network of water mains that already is prone to frequent breaks from normal wear and tear.

To cover pipe upgrades and other expenses — including a separate emergency water system for firefighting in a disaster — Garcetti suggested a bond measure that would cover seismic upgrades statewide. Details of the measure, which would require voters' approval, remain undefined.

After more than a decade of state fiscal troubles, a big bond measure could be a tough sell to Brown, the Legislature and voters. Californians approved a $7.5-billion water bond last month, but only after intense news coverage of the drought and the vulnerability of the state's water supply.

Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor's Office of Emergency Services, said an earthquake preparedness bond measure was not "out of the question." But first, he said, the Brown administration would want to see more collaboration between local governments and the private sector on a quake preparation strategy.

"It's not just as simple as 'let's pass a bond,' " he said.

Garcetti has had Jones provide briefings on seismic safety to regional political leaders. Looking ahead, he plays down the challenges.

"I don't feel like the politics are too difficult," he said. "I think people are realizing that this is a matter of life and death."


Twitter: @finneganLAT

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