Beneath the charming facades of the historic brick buildings in the downtown areas of Ventura County lies a hidden potential for disaster.
According to state standards, 439 buildings in eight of the county’s 10 cities are considered unsafe to be inside or near during a major earthquake, which scientists say is inevitable in Southern California.
With no steel bars to reinforce walls, no anchors to hold the walls to the roofs or to the foundations, the bricks can shift and crumble onto city sidewalks and people.
Building officials cite as examples the massive damage caused by the October, 1989, earthquake in Santa Cruz and Watsonville, cities similar in construction and geology to those in Ventura County.
To date, however, no cities in Ventura County have enacted ordinances that require property owners to retrofit their buildings built before 1935 to meet current safety standards.
The city of Ventura, the county seat, has the most unreinforced brick buildings in the county. Among the 145 buildings of unreinforced masonry are the Ventura Mission and Holy Cross School, where 200 children attend Mass and classes daily.
The Catholic Church intends to bring the two historic buildings up to safety standards as soon as the city of Ventura passes an ordinance requiring the improvements, Msgr. Patrick J. O’Brien said. But the church has no money to do the work now or after an ordinance is passed, he said.
“We are people of faith,” O’Brien said. “People do come through for us when there is a real need.”
Everett Millais, Ventura’s director of community development, said the city should help its property owners improve their buildings as soon as possible to save lives and businesses. He hopes the city will have an ordinance in place by April.
“Anyone who looks at what happened to downtown Santa Cruz or Watsonville can see what we need to do,” he said. “We all want to do what we can to see that when the earthquake does happen, we don’t end up with a roped-off downtown where we have to go in and bulldoze the buildings.”
The city is waiting until it sees the results of a study by an outside consultant before it develops an ordinance. Those results are due to be completed next month.
The study will recommend the level of repairs that the buildings need and whether they can still be economically viable after expensive repairs. Millais said many of the buildings that are long and narrow might not pass the economic test.
Those buildings, such as the one that houses Hess Hardware, need upgrades but cannot command high rents to pay for the work. Some buildings might eventually have to be razed, as owners walk away from their unprofitable investments, Millais said.
Hess Hardware owner Daniel A. McKenzie said he hopes the day an ordinance is passed never arrives.
“I hope the owner doesn’t do any upgrades,” said McKenzie, who for 45 years has leased the small store space where buyers can find everything from nails to nutcrackers. “If he does, we’re out. The cost would be so great that the rent would go up and we couldn’t stand it.”
Ventura’s earthquake study comes on the heels of evidence that Ventura County might be at greater risk for major earthquakes than previously believed.
Earlier this month scientists meeting in San Francisco uncovered evidence of a fault off the coast of California that could cause an earthquake of the magnitude of 7.
At the same meeting, scientists revealed that information from new space technology confirmed previous findings that two Ventura County mountain ranges are converging rapidly in geological time, increasing the likelihood of a major earthquake.
But the information has not spurred enough action in Ventura County, said Jack DeJong, a consultant hired by Fillmore and Ojai to advise the cities on earthquake problems.
“From a safety standpoint, it is not wise to wait,” said DeJong, who has studied all the cities in the county. “But from an economic point of view, I can understand the people’s hesitancy to do anything about their buildings.”
Santa Paula has a voluntary ordinance, which asks the owners of 120 unsafe buildings to fix their properties. But the absence of a requirement together with the city’s lack of financial help for business owners renders the ordinance almost ineffective, DeJong said.
He said people outside the affected area tend to forget the impacts of an earthquake a few months after it happens. “The economics are such that if they are not forced to upgrade their buildings, they are not going to do it,” DeJong said.
In Fillmore, 64 downtown buildings are unreinforced, but the city is waiting to see how Ventura handles its ordinance, officials said.
Oxnard, with 53 unreinforced masonry buildings, should have an ordinance by mid-1992 that requires upgrades and provides city redevelopment money for low-interest loans, city officials there said.
Camarillo, with 37 hazardous buildings, contracts with Ventura County’s Building and Safety Department for service and falls under its guidelines. The county has not yet required improvements.
Ojai is the only city that has made real progress, DeJong said. The city is working on a mandatory ordinance and has begun working with its property owners to improve 11 hazardous buildings. The city already worked in conjunction with 17 owners of buildings connected by the arcade, a stucco overhang that covered a downtown sidewalk.
The city of Ojai set up an assessment district there to finance $1.7 million in repairs.
Moorpark has only seven buildings considered hazardous and Simi Valley only two. The cities of Thousand Oaks and Port Hueneme have none.
All officials acknowledge that tough political and economic decisions lie ahead for the city councils that must make the policy decisions.
“There is no simple answer,” Ventura’s Millais said. “Our consultant put it to us this way: If the objective is to preserve downtown building stock and prevent loss of life and property in an earthquake, then we should do the upgrades. But if the objective is to keep the downtown economically viable, the solutions start becoming very complex.”
BUILDINGS’ EARTHQUAKE PREPAREDNESS
No. of Earthquake unreinforced upgrade City masonry bldgs. ordinance Ventura 145 bldgs., mostly downtown No. Study and recommendations due in Jan. Santa Paula 120 bldgs., mostly downtown Yes. Ordinance asks owners to voluntarily improve buildings. Fillmore 64 buildings, many downtown No. City is waiting to see what Ventura does. Oxnard 53 buildings No. Expect mandatory ordinance by spring 1992. Camarillo 37 buildings, mostly downtown No. City is under county building requirements. Ojai 11 buildings, mostly downtown Ordinance proposed, city working with owners to help fund improvements. Moorpark 7 buildings No. Simi Valley 2 buildings No. Port Hueneme 0 buildings No. Thousand 0 buildings No. Oaks