Plan Unsettling to Building Owners : Burbank Studies New Earthquake Codes

Times Staff Writer

The City of Burbank is considering an ordinance that would require more than 60 aging commercial buildings in the troubled Golden Mall shopping area and nearby downtown neighborhoods to be upgraded for earthquake safety or face demolition.

It is a proposal that already is shaking up property owners.

The proposed ordinance, heard for the first time last week by the Burbank City Council, would establish "minimum standards for structural seismic resistance for unreinforced masonry bearing wall buildings" built before 1934.

Compliance with the codes could involve rebuilding the structures, many of which lack steel reinforcement, city officials said.

The ordinance would require the installation of fire-stopping materials and equipment to facilitate ventilation.

Deadlines for Restructuring

Owners of buildings that present a high risk of danger in an earthquake would have 270 days to submit an analysis of building defects and proposed alterations by a licensed structural or civil engineer to the city's Department of Public Works. A building permit would have to be issued within 90 days. Construction would have to start within 180 days and be completed within three years.

A detailed structural analysis could cost as much as $2,000, said Steven M. Magnuson, public works director. City officials said improvements on the individual buildings could cost tens of thousands of dollars.

If a property owner failed to comply with the ordinance or pay for the structural analysis before the deadlines, the city could order the building vacated until the analysis were submitted. If there were still no compliance within 90 days after the building were vacated, the city could order the building torn down.

"The real impetus to this being done now were the Mexico City earthquakes," said Magnuson, referring to the September, 1985, temblors that killed an estimated 7,000 people. "The biggest step we could take now to make Burbank safe is the elimination of hazards presented by these buildings."

Proposal Raises Anxiety

Although the council has ordered further study of the ordinance, it has already stirred anxiety and anger.

Developer Thomas Tunnicliffe, who owns several buildings on and around the Golden Mall, called it "a terrible ordinance" that would unfairly victimize owners of private property. Most of the targeted buildings are within the downtown redevelopment area. Tunnicliffe said the city should buy the buildings if they are unsafe.

Morrie Goodstein, president of the Golden Mall Merchants Assn. and owner of a store in one of Tunnicliffe's buildings, said the deadlines would make the mall resemble "a battlefield." He said about half of the buildings would be undergoing improvements or rebuilding at the same time.

Members of the congregation of First Christian Church in Burbank worry that they might not be able to afford an inspection or renovation of their church, built in 1927.

Task Force Formed

A task force from the Burbank Chamber of Commerce and Board of Realtors has been formed to study the ordinance, and further meetings with other property owners are planned before the ordinance again comes before the council.

The proposal casts another cloud over the Golden Mall, a pedestrian shopping area sometimes frequented by vagrants. City officials have long wanted to revitalize the mall and have made plans to integrate the shops into the proposed Towncenter shopping center.

Although city officials had planned to make the mall more accessible by opening it to vehicles, merchants objected because of the limited parking on the street. A public hearing is now being planned to study the conflict.

The earthquake ordinance is patterned after similar legislation adopted last year by Los Angeles. That ordinance was aimed at about 8,000 commercial and residential buildings, said Jim Moore, a structural engineer with the earthquake safety division of the Los Angeles Building and Safety Department.

Like the Los Angeles ordinance, the Burbank proposal targets buildings constructed before 1934. More restrictive building codes were adopted that prohibit the construction of unreinforced buildings after the devastation of the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, which left many brick buildings in Long Beach, Inglewood and Artesia in ruins.

Magnuson said field surveys of buildings were performed after the 1971 earthquake in Sylmar, but no earthquake-safety ordinances have been proposed until now.

In Redevelopment Areas

City officials said they have not estimated the value of the listed properties. Nor have they inspected the individual properties to estimate the amount of work needed.

But the officials acknowledged that most of the buildings are within one of the three redevelopment areas, among the oldest in the city.

"That would mean that there is blight in that area, and the city is supposed to get rid of the blight," said Tunnicliffe, who owns at least five of the properties marked for inspection and alteration. "If the buildings I have are unsafe, why hasn't the city acquired them before now? Why don't they acquire them now? If this is what they want to do, then they should get out their checkbook, pay us and tear the buildings down. That's the whole purpose of redevelopment."

A 'Catch-22'

Tunnicliffe, who owns about $5 million worth of property in the Golden Mall area, said property owners are trapped by the "Catch-22" nature of the ordinance.

"If you spend this large sum of money improving or rebuilding the building, the city can still come in and acquire the property for redevelopment purposes, claim it through eminent domain," he said. "If you don't improve the property, then the city can come in, tear down your building and pay you just lot value for your property. It's confiscation of private property without compensation."

But city officials said a building's location in a redevelopment area doesn't protect it from regulations.

"It is the owner's responsibility to pay for and provide for all code requirements," said Susan Boyle, an administrative analyst with the city's Community Development Department.

Safety Issue

Larry Kosmont, community development director, called the dispute a "safety issue rather than a redevelopment issue."

The question of who will pay for upgrading is one that city officials expect to controversial. Magnuson said local and state governments do not give financial assistance to property owners upgrading for earthquake safety.

"I can tell you from a practical sense that it's going to be so costly that no one will be able to afford it," Tunnicliffe said. "It would put all the businesses in that building out of business, because you have to build an Erector Set inside a building to reinforce it and earthquake-proof it. Do they think we're all Howard Hughes?"

Too Costly for Church

The members of the congregation at First Christian Church, in the 200 block of 6th Street, are already anxious about how to pay for an analysis or improvements.

"Based on the current size of our congregation and the size of the building, it would just be too costly for us to do anything now," said Steven Cates, a board member of the church. "We'd like to get some sort of governmental assistance, but we may have to ask our church headquarters in Indiana for help."

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