Two concrete buildings at the San Fernando Veterans Administration Hospital crumbled in the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, killing 49 people.(Bruce Cox / Los Angeles Times)
Concrete columns supporting the stairwells of Olive View Medical Center failed because there was too little steel reinforcement. After the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, county officials toured the destruction.(John Malmin)
Two L.A. City Council members are calling for the city to explore bond measures to help property owners strengthen potentially dangerous buildings that could collapse in a major earthquake.
The proposal by Tom LaBonge and Mitch Englander asks city staff to report back on how the city could provide loans or help finance the retrofit of wooden apartment buildings with weak or “soft” ground floors and older concrete buildings.
Los Angeles officials have known about the dangers of these buildings for years, but concerns about costs killed earlier efforts in L.A. to identify and force property owners to retrofit their buildings. Many owners say they shouldn’t have to pay for expensive fixes on their own. The costs for an engineering assessment of a single building could be tens of thousands of dollars or more.
Englander, who served as chief of staff to the last councilman who pushed to revive the issue, said it’s unreasonable to simply create an “unfunded mandate” without looking into financial assistance for property owners.
“We realize it’s so expensive, but we need to get it done,” said Englander. "This is something that I’ve been seriously interested in for a long time, and it’s way overdue.… We cannot continue to put this off.”
LaBonge, who also submitted motions to look into cataloging the city’s old concrete buildings and wooden soft-story apartment buildings, said a statewide bond program may be the way to help property owners finance the costly retrofits. “It’s a statewide issue,” he said. “Earthquakes have no borders … we got to be prepared for the future.”
The motions follow a Times report on concrete buildings that were built before 1976. By the most conservative estimate, as many as 50 of the more than 1,000 old concrete buildings in the city would collapse in a major earthquake, exposing thousands to injury or death.
Concrete buildings may look strong, but many older concrete buildings are vulnerable to the sideways movement of a major earthquake because they don’t have enough steel reinforcement to hold columns in place. Experts say sorting out which present the greatest danger of injury and death to occupants is a daunting problem that will require building-by-building assessments by structural engineers.
Wooden “soft"-story structures often are built over carports and held up with slender columns, leaving the upper floors at risk of crashing into ground-floor apartments during shaking. The 1994 Northridge earthquake damaged or destroyed about 200 of these structures, and 16 people died in the Northridge Meadows apartment complex.
In a separate proposal last week, City Councilman Bernard C. Parks asked that the city create a reliable list of older concrete buildings that need retrofitting and recommend fixes.
The motions will be discussed by a City Council planning committee in November.
Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.