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Earthquake-Vulnerable Apartment Buildings in Santa Monica Get Simplified Retrofit Rules

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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

February 14, 2018 -- With retrofit deadlines approaching for almost 1,600 earthquake-vulnerable apartment buildings in Santa Monica, the City has introduced a simplified process to help owners naviagte more easily through a complex law.

Under the new guidelines, which go into effect this month, projects to retrofit most "soft-story" buildings would require less extensive reviews, officials said.

Soft-story buildings -- which represent about 80 percent of the 2,000 Santa Monica structures deemed vulnerable in a earthquake -- are apartment buildings with flimsy first floors mostly used as parking, with apartment units above.

The new guidelines come almost one year after the City adopted the nation’s most aggressive retrofit law in March of 2017 mandating structural work to protect buildings that would likely be unable to survive a major earthquake without serious and potentially fatal damage.

Five types of buildings are on the City’s inventory list as being vulnerable, but the single-biggest category is the “soft story” building, also known as dingbats.

The law includes both commercial and multi-family residential buildings.

The first wave of such notices went out to about 400 building owners in September of 2017.

The City’s mandatory retrofit law gives those owners (with buildings of two stories and up to 16 units) until September-October of 2019 to meet a compliance report deadline.

The retrofits must be completed by September-October of 2023.

Depending on the number of units and total floors of each soft-story building, compliance dates continue from 2020 on, with finish dates of 2024.

As of February 20, though, the City said it will simplify the seismic retrofit paperwork for most soft-story building owners.

The new Soft-Story Seismic Retrofit supplemental application removes review by the City Planning and/or Mobility Divisions for most projects, officials said.

The supplemental application is completed with the City’s regular Plan Check application. It includes a series of questions about the project to determine if it qualifies for the exception from plan check review.

In addition, the City is instituting a new, simplified application for owners of tenant-occupied soft-story buildings hat will replace the standard long form.

An applicant is only required to sign the Soft-Story Means & Methods form “acknowledging the tenant protections during construction and tenant relocation requirements,” the City said in announcing the change.

More information can be found at or email

Soft-story buildings have a poor record of handling the violent shaking of earthquakes. Without a solid foundation beneath them, the units above have a record of collapsing.

During the 1994 Northridge earthquake, 16 of the 57 people killed were inside the Northridge Meadows apartments, a 164-unit soft-story structure. A total of 33 people died from fallen buildings during the quake.

In Santa Monica, more than 500 structures were damaged or destroyed in the temblor.

Last October, the City's Rent Control Board wrestled over the possibility of allowing Santa Monica landlords to raise rents to help pay the cost of mandatory seismic retrofitting ("Santa Monica Rent Board Weighs Hikes for Earthquake Retrofits," October 13, 2017).

Soft-story apartment building are still fairly widespread in Southern California.

The City of Los Angeles is home to about 13,500 soft-story apartment buildings, which are also subject to mandatory retrofit under the L.A.’s earthquake-safety law.

The structures mostly date back to the post-WWII population and building boom, and were a popular option for modest housing ("Santa Monica Library Hosts Panel on Local Phenomenon," March 11, 2016).

As real estate became more expensive, builders focused on taller, multi-story apartment complexes which squeezed more units onto smaller parcels.

Santa Monica's 1979 Rent Control law made it extremely difficult to tear down rent-controlled buildings, leaving many of the soft-story structures standing.

In addition to soft-story buildings, other structures on the City's earthquake-vulnerable list are about 209 unreinforced masonry buildings; 34 concrete tilt-up buildings; 66 no-ductile concrete buildings; and 80 steel moment frame buildings.

City officials estimate a cost of $5,000 to $10,000 per unit to retrofit a typical wood apartment building and $50 to $100 per square foot for concrete and steel buildings.

The city's move comes more than three years after The Times reported how Santa Monica quietly stopped enforcing its earthquake safety regulations.

The city had passed laws in the 1990s requiring retrofits of these buildings, but the mandatory retrofit effort quietly faded in the early 2000s amid the departure of key staff. By 2013, the city could not find its old list of possibly vulnerable buildings.

Former City officials were stunned when told of the missing list, and elected leaders vowed to take up the issue.

With the release of its list, Santa Monica has become the first city in California to publicly post a list of addresses of possibly vulnerable concrete and steel buildings that should be evaluated for seismic risk ("Nearly 2,000 Buildings in Santa Monica at Risk in Earthquake," December 1, 2016).


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