Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is facing a tangle of unforeseen political and legal challenges as he grapples with what action the city should take to identify and reinforce hundreds of old concrete buildings that may be at risk of collapse in a major earthquake.
Responding to a Times report of structurally vulnerable buildings that could expose thousands to injury or death, Garcetti said in an interview that he was "interested in creative ways of making buildings safer." But he raised concerns about the city's potential liability if it publicly identifies structures at risk of failing during violent shaking in a major quake.
"I think it has to be done really carefully, because people can sue us … for loss of value of their property," Garcetti said.
Launching a major and potentially costly earthquake safety program was not on the agenda Garcetti set for his administration when he took office in July. To make seismic safety a priority, as his counterpart in San Francisco has, would require Garcetti to confront two of the most powerful political forces in Los Angeles: building owners and tenants.
Some City Council members already have stepped ahead of Garcetti. One, Bernard Parks, is demanding that the city create a reliable list of older concrete buildings that lack the kind of steel reinforcement in support columns required in new buildings since 1976, after the collapse of buildings in the 1971 Sylmar earthquake.
Garcetti noted the potential for loss of life, but also said he is concerned about placing too heavy a financial burden on building owners by requiring seismic retrofits.
"Even if we spend $10 billion reinforcing these, there's going to be an earthquake that could take them down," he said. "What's a reasonable way for people to protect their property values and see a pathway for strengthening these buildings?"
Parks said the legal consequences of failing to address structural shortcomings the city knows to be dangerous far outweigh the potential liability from identifying unsafe buildings.
"I don't think you can tiptoe around the issue of whether the buildings are safe for fear that the building owner might lose property value," said Parks, who has proposed instructing the city Board of Public Works to gather data on older concrete buildings that need retrofitting and recommend fixes. "The greatest liability is to know — and do nothing."
The Times reported Sunday that more than 1,000 old concrete buildings in the city may be at risk of collapsing in a major quake. Experts say sorting out which present the greatest danger of injury and death to occupants is a daunting problem that will require building-by-building assessments by structural engineers.
Despite repeated recommendations to compile a list of concrete buildings that require additional scrutiny, city officials have failed to do so, The Times reported.
Garcetti's methodical approach to the question of earthquake safety is consistent with what he describes as a hallmark of his administration: "Do it right" over "do it quick."
One of the most immediate questions facing Garcetti is whether to ask a team of scientists led by UC Berkeley engineering professor Jack Moehle for its list of about 1,500 older concrete buildings in L.A.. The scientists have declined to make the list public because they fear lawsuits by building owners. But they told The Times they probably would share it with L.A. officials if they requested a copy.
Garcetti said his first instinct would be to get the list and make it public.
"But what if they made mistakes on there, and somebody has a huge loss of their property value?" he asked. "I'm liable for that. I've got to take that out of something else in the city budget if we're held liable."
Parks and Councilman Tom LaBonge, who also is considering seeking a city inventory of old concrete buildings in need of retrofitting, said the ever-present threat of a major temblor makes quick action essential.
"I don't want to tag anybody, or have a property be earmarked as a hazard, but we're very concerned that there's going to be another earthquake — whether it's this afternoon, or in 20 years," LaBonge said.
Balancing the cost, liability and need for public safety in earthquake retrofitting of buildings has been a recurring, but largely manageable, challenge in California.
When Alameda, just west of Oakland, made public the addresses of wood-framed buildings that needed to be reviewed for possible seismic retrofits, property owners grumbled. But no one sued the city, said Alan M. Cohen, an assistant city attorney in Alameda. The city of Berkeley approved similar measures, and no lawsuits resulted, said Wendy Cosin, the city's deputy planning director.
In the 1980s, Los Angeles required the owners of 8,000 unreinforced brick buildings to retrofit the structures, or demolish them.
The way the issue unfolded in San Francisco — with an initial push by Gavin Newsom, Mayor Ed Lee's predecessor — suggests that seismic safety could divert Garcetti's attention from economic development and other matters he has set as priorities.
In April, Lee won a rare unanimous Board of Supervisors vote to pass a law requiring owners to retrofit thousands of wood-framed "soft-story" buildings — which have weak first-floor supports — at a cost of $60,000 to $130,000 apiece. The city is helping owners finance the retrofits through a loan that's repaid as a property-tax assessment. Owners can pass along repair costs to tenants over 20 years.
To get the retrofitting law passed required enormous time and attention from the mayor, said Jason Elliott, Lee's legislative and government affairs director.
"We started our effort by demonstrating over and over again how real the impact of an earthquake would be, and the human cost of that," he said. Once building owners and tenant groups agreed on the need to fix dangerous buildings, he said, "we started the conversation about who would pay for what."
If Garcetti and the council push to require retrofits of old concrete buildings, they will be tackling a far more complex and costly enterprise. The costs for engineering assessment alone of individual buildings — before work is started — could be tens of thousands of dollars or more. Concerns about costs killed earlier efforts in L.A. to identify and retrofit concrete buildings.
Martha Cox-Nitikman, senior director of the Building Owners and Managers Assn. of Greater Los Angeles, joined Garcetti in calling for a statewide loan program to address the problem — no doubt an uphill battle as California struggles to recover from its chronic fiscal crises.
"We should start pressing for some kind of assistance if we're going to do this in a comprehensive way," she said.
As he weighs the options for figuring out which buildings are dangerous and how the city can get them reinforced, Garcetti said he was conferring with earthquake experts and assigning lawyers to "scrub for a while."
"We won't turn things around in a day," Garcetti said.