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Santa Monica to ID vulnerable buildings, order earthquake retrofits

Laws and LegislationBuilding MaterialCrime, Law and JusticeU.S. Geological Survey

Santa Monica will become the first city in California to inspect concrete, steel and wood-frame buildings and require seismic retrofitting for those deemed vulnerable during a major earthquake.

The city will spend more than $100,000 over the next year identifying potentially dangerous buildings, then property owners must show they are safe or fix them. City officials said they will determine over the next few months how much time the owners have to complete the retrofitting.

The survey is expected to cover hundreds of buildings, including steel office towers, older concrete buildings and wood multistory apartment houses that dot the city. Santa Monica has estimated it has at least 70 concrete buildings alone.

The effort comes as Los Angeles officials are considering a similar inventory of concrete and wooden apartment buildings. University of California researchers last month released a list of nearly 1,500 older concrete buildings in Los Angeles, but more work is needed to determine which ones need retrofits.

San Francisco last year required retrofitting of wood apartment buildings.

But Santa Monica's effort goes much further, covering the three types of buildings that most concern seismic experts. Concrete buildings are thought to pose the greatest risk of loss of life in a huge temblor.

Santa Monica Mayor Pam O'Connor said that while officials can't predict when an earthquake will hit, they can make the city's buildings more secure.

“It could be in two minutes. It could be in 30 years.… It's down to public safety,” O'Connor said. “We need to find out where the risks are.”

The city is likely to get push-back from property owners.

Bill Dawson, a board member of the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles who manages rental properties in Santa Monica, said that the high costs of retrofitting can be difficult for some property owners, “especially the small mom-and-pops.”

He urged the city to set up a low- or no-interest loan fund and allow owners an exemption from the city's rent control law and pass on the costs of retrofits to tenants.

“That will help encourage compliance and therefore safety of the residents,” Dawson said.

Santa Monica's move brought cheers from seismic safety advocates, who called it a landmark step to address the dangers.

“I think it's fantastic,” said Thalia Anagnos, who compiled the list of buildings published with the University of California study.

“It's a great first step,” added David Cocke, a structural engineer who runs a firm in Gardena. “You gotta do something, and the best place to start is to identify where the potential vulnerable buildings are.”

Santa Monica's move comes 20 years after the city passed laws requiring retrofitting of concrete, steel and wood apartment buildings that are vulnerable to collapse during shaking.

The Times reported in November that the city stopped implementing the law some years later. Officials acknowledged that they could not find the list the city had created of buildings that might be at risk.

Santa Monica's efforts to focus on concrete buildings is significant. No other city in California has tried to identify concrete buildings at risk of collapse and require them to be retrofitted.

Despite the known risks of concrete buildings, Los Angeles officials have for decades been dissuaded by property owners from requiring owners to make their properties safer or even identifying older concrete structures.

But after a Times report in October highlighted the risks of concrete buildings in Los Angeles, City Council members have introduced proposals to create such a list, and Mayor Eric Garcetti has partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey to come up with recommendations on how Los Angeles can get vulnerable concrete and wooden apartment buildings retrofitted. 

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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