Soft-story building

Firefighters stand outside a building in San Francisco's Marina district that failed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Los Angeles hopes to follow San Francisco's lead in upgrading "soft-story" buildings. (Otto Greule Jr. / Getty Images / October 17, 1989)

SAN FRANCISCO — When officials were trying to sell the most sweeping earthquake regulations in a generation, they weren't afraid to play off the pride many residents feel about their city.

Unless thousands of apartments with weak first floors were reinforced, they warned, a major earthquake would not only be deadly but would leave up to 60,000 homeless. The displaced would have to move out of the city — most of them all the way to the Central Valley, where housing was available. The destruction would also take thousands of rent-controlled apartments off the market permanently.

The grim message was one element in what turned out to be a winning strategy that culminated this spring, when San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed legislation requiring owners of "soft-story" wood apartments to make the structures safer.

INTERACTIVE GRAPHIC: Retrofitting wood soft-story buildings

Now, Los Angeles officials are considering a similar undertaking, but on a much larger scale. San Francisco identified about 3,000 wood-frame apartment buildings that need retrofitting; Los Angeles has many more.

On Tuesday, structural engineers from around the state will gather in Los Angeles to discuss seismic issues at the Buildings at Risk conference. Soft-story buildings will be a centerpiece. Los Angeles officials are expected to provide details about a proposed census of wood soft-story buildings across the city.

Also this week, Los Angeles officials are meeting with San Francisco's earthquake team to get advice on how to proceed in addressing the risks associated with these buildings.

Councilman Tom LaBonge called for the census, which seismic safety experts hope is a first step in regulations to make the structures safer. Wood soft-story buildings generally have parking on the first floor supported by weak columns that can collapse during a major earthquake.

LaBonge's plan is one of the few significant seismic safety initiatives at City Hall in decades. City officials are now studying the cost and feasibility of such a survey, which could involve thousands of buildings.

San Francisco offers lessons to Los Angeles about the politics of earthquake retrofitting. As in Los Angeles, advocates of new quake safety rules faced heavy opposition from property owners and tenants groups. But they were able to make the case that inaction would be more costly in the long run.

If San Francisco is any indication, Los Angeles may have a long road ahead. The city began to focus on soft-story buildings after many of them collapsed in the Marina district during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The regulations were finally passed 24 years later.

In 1989, Gavin Newsom, the future mayor of San Francisco, was 22 and about to watch Game 3 of the World Series between the Giants and the Oakland Athletics at a friend's house in the Marina district when the shaking started. When he got outside, mud was bubbling up from the street and black smoke was billowing into the air.

Newsom ran the few blocks to check on his mother's apartment. It was intact, but several neighboring apartments collapsed and three people, including a baby boy, died.

To city officials, it quickly became clear that San Francisco got off lucky. The magnitude 6.9 quake's epicenter was 60 miles south of the city, and lasted for 15 seconds. A larger quake closer to the city would have been much more devastating.

More than four years later, in January 1994, the Northridge quake struck Los Angeles before dawn.

Laurence Kornfield, San Francisco's chief building inspector at the time, saw something disturbingly similar to the 1989 quake. As with the Marina district, Los Angeles had wooden apartments collapse, notably, the Northridge Meadows complex where 16 died, many in their beds.

Spurred by both quakes, San Francisco agreed to spend $1 million to identify earthquake risks in buildings in the city. But when regulators began discussing specifics, the powerful building industry objected. Eventually, all the plans were put on hold.

The biggest opponent of earthquake code changes was the Residential Builders Assn., a coalition of construction firms and related businesses, that were allies of Mayor Willie Brown.

In 2003, Newsom was elected mayor, replacing Brown. Newsom ran on a platform that included changing the building department, which he said had grown too cozy with builders. After taking office, he pushed for the department's top official to be replaced.

Meanwhile, structural engineers and public policy experts organized to overcome the political paralysis. They wrote a report and spoke at town hall meetings about the dangers of doing nothing.