Pasadena Called Slow to Obey Quake Safety Law

Times Staff Writer

State officials are concerned that although Pasadena has the largest number of unreinforced masonry buildings in the San Gabriel Valley, it is slow to comply with a state earthquake safety law.

The Unreinforced Masonry Building Act, adopted in 1986, requires all cities and counties in earthquake zones to notify owners of commercial brick buildings constructed before 1933 that the structures are unsafe, and to report the number of buildings to the state by Jan. 1, 1990.

Eight other San Gabriel Valley cities, including Monterey Park, Azusa, Irwindale and South Pasadena, have adopted building codes that require owners to make needed repairs. But Pasadena has neither adopted codes nor reported to the state, with the deadline less than six months away. State officials say it is the largest California city that has not reported its progress.

There are about 40,000 commercial buildings of unreinforced masonry (URMs) in California, occupied by 1.2 million people during peak hours. Seismic experts believe that unreinforced brick buildings pose a severe hazard during earthquakes because masonry cannot absorb rocking and swaying motion, and the ceilings and floors are not anchored to the walls .


Pasadena is “sticking out like a sore thumb at this point,” said Fred Turner, a structural engineer for the state Seismic Safety Commission in Sacramento. “We don’t want to assume a threatening role in this, but we want to know why cities such as Pasadena are not responding.”

The law also requires cities to establish programs to lessen the possibility of earthquake damage, which could include ordinances requiring owners to strengthen unreinforced buildings.

Harriet McGinley, an administrative officer in Pasadena’s Planning, Housing and Building Services Department, said the city is behind because the department is short-staffed.

Pasadena’s building code does not require owners to upgrade unreinforced buildings unless they are already undergoing structural changes, and, McGinley said, the city will wait until a new building official is hired to consider making URM upgrading mandatory.


McGinley said, however, that Pasadena has made some progress toward meeting the law’s deadline: It has identified 519 unreinforced buildings, and in two weeks a private engineering firm will survey them for structural weak spots.

In the San Gabriel Valley, Claremont and Covina are a few steps behind, having just started counting the numbers of unreinforced buildings in their areas.

Statewide, 127 cities and counties encompassing 34% of the population in earthquake zones have reported no progress in complying with the URM law. Thirty-one cities and counties, representing 30% of the population in quake zones, have established safety programs for unreinforced buildings.

In several cities, such programs include grants and loans to owners wishing to upgrade their buildings.

Azusa and El Monte are offering owners of unreinforced buildings loans to offset some of the costs of mandatory facade-redesign projects aimed at revitalizing the downtown areas.

In Baldwin Park, financial assistance is available only for low- or moderate-income owners.

La Puente is using federal block grants to subsidize the costs of engineering for the city’s 23 unreinforced buildings, and will offer loans to owners to upgrade them.

Upgrading an unreinforced brick building can cost as much as $20 per square foot--$120,000 for the average 6,000-square-foot building. The cost is why some city officials say they hesitate to force owners to bring their structures up to code.


“We’re reluctant to have a program if we aren’t giving the financial assistance,” said Konradt Bartlam, Pomona’s manager of development services. “It becomes an economic consideration. There is obviously the concern that any ordinance not be too overburdening.”

Pasadena’s delayed response concerns one member of the Seismic Safety Commission, who said Pasadena, the largest city in the San Gabriel Valley, should lead rather than follow smaller cities that are aggressively promoting earthquake safety in unreinforced buildings.

“We hope that completing the inventory will not discharge them from all obligations,” said Wilfred Iwan, an earthquake engineering professor at Caltech. “That would be an extremely unfortunate attitude towards the problem. There are people whose lives are at risk, and I would hope that they would take the initiative to ensure the safety of their citizens.”

No Answer

Iwan said Pasadena Mayor William Thomson had not answered his May 18 letter that said the city is one of the most vulnerable to earthquakes in the state. The letter said the city probably had more than 519 unreinforced buildings, because it only counted those with load-bearing walls, whereas the state law covers all types of URMs. Iwan estimated there were 900 unreinforced buildings in Pasadena.

Thomson, however, said the city will meet the Jan. 1 deadline for notifying owners. “But at this point we haven’t made the decision as to whether we need an (upgrading) ordinance or not,” he said. “It could well be an enormous cost.”

Earthquake safety renovation on some unreinforced buildings has already begun in Pasadena and other cities, regardless of whether local building codes require it. In Old Town, the section of Pasadena along Colorado Boulevard, which is almost exclusively unreinforced masonry, owners must seismically upgrade any buildings that are being remodeled or rehabilitated. One of the city’s largest unreinforced buildings, the Thomas Edison office complex on Raymond Avenue, is undergoing earthquake safety repairs and remodeling.

But the recent attention focused on seismic safety comes too late for some brick buildings that didn’t survive the October, 1987, earthquake in Whittier.


A Pasadena car repair shop on Fair Oaks Avenue collapsed during that 5.9 temblor, and the damage to two others was so severe they were shut down and never reopened.

Alhambra’s Edwards Theater, the first in the chain, had to be demolished after the walls collapsed and caved in onto the front seats of the cinema. Two of the city’s fire stations were shut down, and one will be torn down soon, said Alhambra planner Craig Melicher.

Razing Required

Melicher said his city is encouraging some owners to tear down buildings that have sustained significant damage over the years. Even upgraded brick buildings, he said, are not damage-proof.

“I think in the long run it is better to demolish,” he said. "(Building codes) are not designed to protect the building, but to keep it standing long enough to get people out. An earthquake might be so bad a year from now, it might have to be demolished anyway.”

Leveling deteriorating buildings might be practical for some cities, but it can threaten historical significance for others.

Sue Mossman, program director for the preservationist group Pasadena Heritage, said the organization is concerned that demolition and large-scale renovation in Pasadena is ruining the city’s historic character. To offset rapid change in Old Town, the group has bought facade easements on 40 buildings, many of which are unreinforced masonry. The arrangement gives tax breaks to developers who must gain Pasadena Heritage’s approval for any exterior work on buildings.

Cities using state or federal funds for URM upgrading must be reviewed by the county Community Development Commission. If any structure is determined historically significant, the owner must follow specific guidelines so as not to significantly impair its appearance.

Other building owners, meanwhile, may be taking an easier out. Melicher said he receives about 10 calls each month from potential buyers of unreinforced masonry buildings who say they were not told the structures may soon have to be brought up to code.

COMPLIANCE WITH STATE UNREINFORCED MASONRY BUILDING LAWAlhambra has identified 330 URMs and is notifying their owners. Expected to adopt Los Angeles County’s building code this year, which requires the upgrading of all URMs. (818) 570-5034 for more information .

Arcadia has hired an engineering firm to identify all URMs. Has not adopted an upgrading ordinance. Does not offer financial aid for upgrading. (213) 627-9222.

Azusa has identified 28 URMs and notified owners. Adopted upgrading ordinance in 1985. Financial assistance available for four of the 28 URMs under a mandatory facade-design program. (818) 334-5125.

Baldwin Park has identified 20 URMs and is expected to adopt an upgrading ordinance before notifying owners. Financial assistance available only for low- and moderate-income owners. (818) 960-4011, Ext. 216.

Bradbury has no URMs.

Claremont is identifying URMs; expected to adopt an upgrading ordinance. Studying ways to offer loans or grants to owners. (714) 399-5477.

Covina is identifying URMs; expected to adopt an upgrading ordinance. Studying ways to offer grants to owners who redesign facades and make seismic improvements. (818) 331-0111.

Diamond Bar has no URMs.

Duarte has no URMs.

El Monte has identified about 20 URMs and is notifying owners. In 1987 adopted ordinance requiring upgrading for 12 URMs that were damaged. Expected to adopt a blanket ordinance. Financial assistance available for work on URMs in the Valley Mall. (818) 580-2070.

Glendora has no information available.

Industry has no information available.

Irwindale has identified URMs (number not available) and is notifying owners. Has adopted county building code. (818) 962-3381.

La Puente has identified 23 URMs and is notifying owners. Has adopted county building code and offers financial assistance to owners. (818) 330-4511.

La Verne has identified 11 URMs and has adopted

county building code. No financial assistance available for upgrading URMs. (714) 599-1286.

Monrovia has identified 76 URMs. Considering adopting county building code and is studying ways to offer financial assistance to owners. (818) 359-3231.

Monterey Park has identified 26 URMs and is notifying owners. Has adopted the city of Los Angeles’ building code and does not offer financial assistance for upgrading. (818) 307-1306.

Pasadena has identified 519 URMs and will hire an engineering firm to survey them within two weeks. Does not offer financial assistance. (818) 405-4155.

Pomona has identified 100 URMs and is notifying owners. Expected to adopt an upgrading ordinance. May use federal block grant funds to finance upgrading. (714) 620-2191.

Rosemead has no information available.

San Dimas has two URMs.

San Gabriel has identified five URMs and has notified owners. Has adopted county building code and does not offer financial assistance for upgrading. (818) 308-2806.

San Marino is in the process of visually identifying URMs, and does not require upgrading. No financial assistance is available. Call (818) 300-0700.

Sierra Madre has identified 67 URMs and is notifying owners. Expected to adopt an upgrading ordinance. Does not offer financial assistance. (818) 355-7135.

South El Monte has no URMs.

South Pasadena has surveyed 32 URMs and notified owners. In 1986 passed an ordinance requiring URM upgrading. Does not offer financial assistance. (818) 441-7838.

Temple City has identified four URMs and is notifying owners. Has adopted county building code. Does not offer financial assistance for upgrading. (818) 285-2171.

Walnut has no URMs.

West Covina has identified one URM and plans to upgrade it.