San Francisco offers lessons to L.A. on quake retrofitting

Firefighters stand outside a building in San Francisco's Marina district that failed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Los Angeles hopes to follow San Francisco's lead in upgrading "soft-story" buildings.
(Otto Greule Jr. / Getty Images)

SAN FRANCISCO — When officials were trying to sell the most sweeping earthquake regulations in a generation, they weren’t afraid to play off the pride many residents feel about their city.

Unless thousands of apartments with weak first floors were reinforced, they warned, a major earthquake would not only be deadly but would leave up to 60,000 homeless. The displaced would have to move out of the city — most of them all the way to the Central Valley, where housing was available. The destruction would also take thousands of rent-controlled apartments off the market permanently.

The grim message was one element in what turned out to be a winning strategy that culminated this spring, when San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed legislation requiring owners of “soft-story” wood apartments to make the structures safer.

INTERACTIVE GRAPHIC: Retrofitting wood soft-story buildings

Now, Los Angeles officials are considering a similar undertaking, but on a much larger scale. San Francisco identified about 3,000 wood-frame apartment buildings that need retrofitting; Los Angeles has many more.


On Tuesday, structural engineers from around the state will gather in Los Angeles to discuss seismic issues at the Buildings at Risk conference. Soft-story buildings will be a centerpiece. Los Angeles officials are expected to provide details about a proposed census of wood soft-story buildings across the city.

Also this week, Los Angeles officials are meeting with San Francisco’s earthquake team to get advice on how to proceed in addressing the risks associated with these buildings.

Councilman Tom LaBonge called for the census, which seismic safety experts hope is a first step in regulations to make the structures safer. Wood soft-story buildings generally have parking on the first floor supported by weak columns that can collapse during a major earthquake.

LaBonge’s plan is one of the few significant seismic safety initiatives at City Hall in decades. City officials are now studying the cost and feasibility of such a survey, which could involve thousands of buildings.

San Francisco offers lessons to Los Angeles about the politics of earthquake retrofitting. As in Los Angeles, advocates of new quake safety rules faced heavy opposition from property owners and tenants groups. But they were able to make the case that inaction would be more costly in the long run.

If San Francisco is any indication, Los Angeles may have a long road ahead. The city began to focus on soft-story buildings after many of them collapsed in the Marina district during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The regulations were finally passed 24 years later.

In 1989, Gavin Newsom, the future mayor of San Francisco, was 22 and about to watch Game 3 of the World Series between the Giants and the Oakland Athletics at a friend’s house in the Marina district when the shaking started. When he got outside, mud was bubbling up from the street and black smoke was billowing into the air.

Newsom ran the few blocks to check on his mother’s apartment. It was intact, but several neighboring apartments collapsed and three people, including a baby boy, died.

To city officials, it quickly became clear that San Francisco got off lucky. The magnitude 6.9 quake’s epicenter was 60 miles south of the city, and lasted for 15 seconds. A larger quake closer to the city would have been much more devastating.

More than four years later, in January 1994, the Northridge quake struck Los Angeles before dawn.

Laurence Kornfield, San Francisco’s chief building inspector at the time, saw something disturbingly similar to the 1989 quake. As with the Marina district, Los Angeles had wooden apartments collapse, notably, the Northridge Meadows complex where 16 died, many in their beds.

Spurred by both quakes, San Francisco agreed to spend $1 million to identify earthquake risks in buildings in the city. But when regulators began discussing specifics, the powerful building industry objected. Eventually, all the plans were put on hold.

The biggest opponent of earthquake code changes was the Residential Builders Assn., a coalition of construction firms and related businesses, that were allies of Mayor Willie Brown.

In 2003, Newsom was elected mayor, replacing Brown. Newsom ran on a platform that included changing the building department, which he said had grown too cozy with builders. After taking office, he pushed for the department’s top official to be replaced.

Meanwhile, structural engineers and public policy experts organized to overcome the political paralysis. They wrote a report and spoke at town hall meetings about the dangers of doing nothing.

As awareness grew, Newsom appointed a task force to write an ordinance requiring repairs to large wooden apartments. He placed a measure on the ballot that called for public funding to help retrofit some of the buildings, but it failed to get the two-thirds majority required.

Newsom’s successor, Ed Lee, picked up the cause. He told officials to write a 30-year plan to get the rest of the city’s vulnerable buildings strengthened. He also hired an earthquake czar, Patrick Otellini, to manage the city’s quake policy — a position unlike any in Los Angeles.

Lee said he was moved in part by Hurricane Katrina and the questions about whether government could have done more to strengthen the levies that failed.

“We stood in the middle of the 9th Ward and asked ourselves, ‘What happened here? What did government not do, where everybody tells us it was all predictable?’” Lee said. “Disengagement with their local government was the talk of the town.”

He still faced two powerful interests that opposed seismic retrofitting: property owners and tenants. Neither were eager to foot the bill.

Instead of forcing owners to strengthen every floor of an apartment – the costly “Maserati” approach — the city pursued the “Toyota” method — keeping the retrofitting confined to the ground story, costing $60,000 to $130,000 per building.

The approach kept the price tag down while giving tenants a good chance that the building would still be livable — and repairable — after a quake.

And when owners complained about taking on more personal debt, the city created a special program that allowed the retrofits to be financed through a property assessment district. The loans are tied to the property and are repaid through property taxes. If an owner sells the property, the new buyer assumes the loan.

Finally, the city allowed owners to pass along the repair costs to their tenants — even those on rent control — over a 20 year period.

With those assurances, the San Francisco Apartment Assn. signed on to the mayor’s proposal.

Tenant advocates were unhappy with paying increased rents. But they dropped their opposition when they received promises that low-income individuals, like those on food stamps, would be exempt from the rent increases.

The mayor won a rare unanimous victory with his Board of Supervisors, which passed the law 11 to 0.

Still, some property owners worry about the costs. Following a divorce, Tom Thomas sold a seven-unit apartment building before the law passed.

“I did not see how I could borrow $100,000 to invest in the building to do the retrofit,” he said. “It did not make sense for me to go further in debt.”

Newsom, now California’s lieutenant governor, said he considered his support for seismic safety a form of accountability to the citizens.

If the city was unprepared during a major earthquake, he said, “every single person in this town — everyone, including property owners — are going to go: ‘What the hell were we thinking?’ ”