CITYWIDE — When the next earthquake hits Santa Monica, will your office building hold up? City Hall wants to know.
City Council set aside $105,000 to kick off a three-part seismic safety program. The cash will go toward the first phase, which will take inventory of the buildings that need to be retrofitted so they can withstand a serious earthquake.
Required retrofitting could hit the wallets of the apartment owners and their tenants.
In the 1980s, City Hall required retrofitting of buildings with unreinforced masonry. In 1994, following the Northridge earthquake, council introduced a program for the repair and retrofit of buildings. In 1999, council developed a retrofit standard, which determines building safety requirements and is still used today.
But not all the improvements were made.
“What (City Hall) found, mainly through the tenant improvement of buildings, is that not all buildings have been retrofitted,” said Building Officer Ron Takiguchi.
There are several reasons why this might be the case, he said.
Some building owners didn’t know it was required: Owners of a building on Fourth Street came to City Hall looking to make simple improvements for a new store. After they ripped out some walls, city officials realized it had never been retrofitted. The owners made the changes and the space is now compliant.
In other instances, Takiguchi said, owners started to retrofit but never completed it or didn’t get in touch with City Hall for final approval.
Some buildings might not have been on the target list when various requirements were enacted but they still need to be upgraded.
Immediately following the earthquake, City Hall enacted emergency regulations that allowed apartment owners to pass all the repair and retrofitting costs along to the tenants, said Tracy Condon, administrator for the Rent Control Board. To encourage rebuilding, City Hall agreed to allow for permanent rent increases.
They got about 1,000 rent increase petitions from landlords, she said, with many related to retrofitting costs.
A year and half after the earthquake, City Hall modified the regulation so that only half of the costs could be passed along to tenants.
The Rent Control Board, along with several other city departments, will advise City Hall as they decide how to handle the retrofitting issues.
Condon is still pulling together information to determine what it generally costs to retrofit buildings after an earthquake.
“It was surprising,” she said. “At that time some soft-story buildings (the type most commonly damaged) were not a huge cost to retrofit. It varied from property to property but in some cases it was not a huge cost.”
Wes Wellman, the president of Action Apartment Association, Inc, said that after the earthquake the cost to retrofit a standard building was in the “low to mid-five figure range.”
“When shear wall reinforcement was later added as a recommendation, retrofitting costs escalated into a six-figure proposition,” he wrote in an e-mail.
The apartment owners, he said, share City Hall’s concern for safety.
“Naturally the greater the level of structural modification the greater the protection but the higher the cost,” Wellman said. “Striking the right balance between safety and cost and crafting a fair sharing of those costs between renters and owners is the challenge which all stakeholders face.”
Consultants and city officials will continue to identify buildings that haven’t been retrofitted and then reassess the current standards and guidelines.
In the fall, they will return to council with recommendations for updates to the municipal code. After the changes are made, City Hall will notify building owners of the upgrades they need to make.
Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Times identified four buildings that may sit on top of a fault. City officials responded saying that they are confident that they are near the fault, but not on top of it.
Santa Monica lacks an Alquist Priolo Earthquake Fault Zone, created by the California Geological Survey (CGS). CGS creates a map of where they believe the fault to be and place a zone around it. Anyone looking to build within that zone must first hire consultants to perform a series of tests. Developers cannot build on top of a fault.
CGS expects the zone to be completed later this year but Takiguchi said that City Hall has long set a conservative zone of their own in the area around the fault. The regulations within that zone, he said, are the same as what will be required when CGS releases its map.