Santa Monica targets quake safety

Retrofit study in Santa Monica
The Northridge earthquake damaged the Masonic Temple in Santa Monica.
(Los Angeles Times )

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 would 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 that 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,” he said.

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.

The risks of concrete buildings were highlighted when concrete hospital buildings fell during the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, killing dozens.

Although vulnerable wood apartments are easier to identify, pinpointing dangerous concrete and steel buildings poses many challenges. Important clues are hidden deep inside columns, walls and beams.

“How good is the list going to be?” wondered Cocke. “It’s going to be an interesting effort to see what they can get for $100,000.

“If they put a list together, and they miss a building … what happens to that building? Does that mean that building is not going to ever be identified?” Cocke asked.

Wooden apartment buildings can collapse if they’re built over a weak first floor. Sixteen residents died during the 1994 Northridge earthquake when the upper floors of the Northridge Meadowsapartment building crashed to the ground, crushing bedrooms and carports below.


Though no steel buildings have collapsed in an earthquake in California, more than 100 were damaged in the Northridge earthquake, leading experts to worry that a stronger quake could bring one down.

Santa Monica’s program could be instructive for Los Angeles, said 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.

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

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, said building official Ron Takiguchi. An engineering consultant will be hired to assist with identifying the concrete and steel buildings.

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, officials allocated $105,000 to hire the consultant, who will be dispatched to survey the city to find suspect buildings, and then comb through building records to confirm the building type and determine if there are any records of retrofit, Takiguchi said.

Eventually, building owners would be notified if their structure comes up as potentially vulnerable, and would be given a chance to show their structure is sound or has been retrofitted.

Buildings determined to be a problem would have to be retrofitted, Takiguchi said.

The survey does not include single-family homes.

“The goal, ultimately, is to have a safe community,” Takiguchi said. “We see the importance of seismic safety as very much a priority for Santa Monica.”

Twitter: @ronlin, @LATDoug, @rosannaxia

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