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Santa Monica will have earthquake engineers identify older buildings

Some Santa Monica property owners are concerned about who will front the retrofit costs

Santa Monica on Tuesday took a significant step in boosting seismic safety by agreeing to hire a top earthquake engineering firm to help the city identify older buildings potentially at risk of collapse in a major temblor.  

The City Council authorized city officials to hire Degenkolb Engineers for a budget that will not exceed $91,524. Once the buildings have been surveyed and cataloged, owners would eventually be notified and given a chance to show their structure does not need seismic strengthening.

Buildings determined to be a problem would have to be retrofitted.

The vote comes after the City Council in February approved a staff request to allocate funding for engineering consultants. Santa Monica will become the first city in California to inspect concrete, steel and wood-frame buildings and require retrofitting for those deemed vulnerable in earthquakes.

“We don’t want to drag our feet on getting this work done,” Mayor Pro Tem Terry O’Day said in an interview. “We’ve gone as far as our staff could go on its own with its resources. This consultant will help us fully understand the issue.”

The survey -- which does not include single-family homes and will focus on buildings constructed before 1996 -- is expected to cover hundreds of buildings, including steel office towers, older concrete buildings and wooden multi-story apartment houses across the city.

“This will tell us which properties are at greatest risk, and what kinds of strategies are available to us to reduce the risk,” O’Day said. The inventory creates a valuable “baseline” for city officials to know where to focus earthquake safety efforts, he said.

The effort comes as Los Angeles officials are considering a similar inventory of concrete and wooden apartment buildings. Lucy Jones, the U.S. Geological Survey seismologist who is acting as a science advisor to the city of Los Angeles on quake retrofit policy, has said Santa Monica's program could be instructive for Los Angeles.

Figuring out which buildings need retrofitting is daunting, but Jones said Santa Monica's effort is "the right thing to do."

San Francisco last year required retrofitting of wood apartment buildings. But Santa Monica's effort goes further, covering the three types of buildings that most concern seismic experts. Older concrete buildings are thought to pose the greatest risk of loss of life in a huge temblor.

In a report to Santa Monica’s mayor and City Council, building official Ron Takiguchi said the city has many buildings that predate 1996 that may require seismic strengthening.

“Although some of these buildings have been identified and retrofitted to acceptable engineering standards, staff believes that there are many buildings that remain unretrofitted and may present a hazard to public safety,” Takiguchi wrote in the report.  

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.

In past studies, Santa Monica has estimated that it has at least 70 concrete buildings alone. In the most recent report to the council, building officials estimated that there are between 30 and 100 buildings that are older concrete, and another 30 to 100 that are steel moment frame buildings.

Santa Monica city officials have already begun combing city streets to assess wooden apartment buildings -- and some were retrofitted in the years after the 1994 earthquake,  Takiguchi said.

Degenkolb Engineers will be instructed "to identify all non-ductile concrete and steel moment frame buildings in the City of Santa Monica and … also assist staff in identifying all remaining types of seismically hazardous buildings,” according to the staff report. It would survey the city to find suspect buildings, and then comb through design drawings and permits to determine if there are any records of retrofit.

The firm would also provide recommendations on how to best retrofit these buildings.

Some property owners are concerned about who will front the retrofit costs once the buildings have been identified.

“Every apartment owner is a responsible citizen and wants to retrofit. But who should pay for it is the real issue,” Michael Millman, who rents to low-income residents, told the City Council on Tuesday.

Degenkolb Engineers was selected by city staff out of 14 engineering firms that responded to the city’s proposal request. The inventory work will begin in approximately two weeks and is expected to be completed in about six weeks, Takiguchi said.

“Santa Monica is very serious about this,” Takiguchi said. “We want to have our building stock safer.”

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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