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Santa Monica Building Owners Slow to Comply with City's Retrofit Law as Fear of Major Earthquake Looms

Bob Kronovetrealty
We Love Property Management Headaches!

Santa Monica Convention and Visitors

By Jorge Casuso

(UPDATED) This article has been updated to reflect the actions the City has taken to ensure compliance with the law.

July 11, 2019 -- As two major jolts and a swarm of aftershocks rattle Southern California, the vast majority of the owners of Santa Monica's most vulnerable buildings have yet to file evaluation reports under the City's seismic retrofit program, Planning Department records show.

The owners of more than 1,000 "soft story" buildings -- apartment buildings with flimsy first floors held up by thin columns above a carport -- have not filed reports as their September deadline approaches, according to data provided to the Lookout by the City.

Santa Monica building damaged in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake
Santa Monica building damaged in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake (Courtesy Santa Monica Image Archives)

Already, many owners of the far fewer unreinforced masonry (URM) and tilt-up buildings, which are also highly vulnerable during temblors, have missed their 2017 deadlines under the City's retrofit law, the most aggressive in the nation.

The City has sent the owners of properties that are out of compliance a reminder letter stating they had 30 days to respond, said Constance Farrell, the City's public information officer.

Building owners who failed to respond had their properties sent to Code Enforcement, which has opened 22 cases so far, Farrell said.

Code enforcers have taken action on seven of the cases, while six cases are still under investigation, she said.

"Throughout the Seismic Retrofit Program, the City of Santa Monica has been committed to informing property owners and the broader community on the program and timelines for each building type," Farrell said.

"Our hope is that property owners will upgrade their property so they are seismically safe."

Approved by the City Council in March 2017, the law mandates structural work to protect buildings that would likely be unable to survive a major earthquake without serious and potentially fatal damage.

Two earthquakes this month with magnitudes of 6.4 and 7.1 sent more than 1,000 aftershocks across Southern California, serving as a reminder of the damage wrought on the city by the 1994 Northridge Earthquake.

During that 6.7 earthquake, more than 500 structures -- most of them soft story buildings -- were damaged or destroyed in Santa Monica, prompting the Council to declare two-thirds of the city an earthquake redevelopment zone.

Soft-story buildings represent about 80 percent of the 1,926 Santa Monica structures deemed "potentially seismically vulnerable" and in need of possible structural improvement under the Seismic Retrofit Program implemented by the law.

Of the 1,664 "soft story" buildings on the City's list, only 145 have undergone a structural analysis by a licensed professional, 60 have had permits issued and 21 have had retrofits completed, the City data shows.

A total of 378 buildings have had their cases closed "either through administrative remedy, provision of compliant structural analysis or completed retrofit," City officials said.

Sometimes called “dingbats,” soft story buildings were popular in Southern California as economical housing in the post WWII building boom ("Santa Monica Library Hosts Panel on Local Phenomenon," March 10, 2016).

Dingbat building in Santa Monica
Dingbat building in Santa Monica (Courtesy Society of Architectural Historians, Southern California Chapter)

Most of those built in Santa Monica have been protected from demolition by the City's strict rent control law -- which covers buildings constructed before 1979, the year the law was passed.

To encourage owners of soft story buildings to comply with the retrofit law, City officials introduced a simplified application process early last year ("Earthquake-Vulnerable Apartment Buildings in Santa Monica Get Simplified Retrofit Rules," February 14, 2018).

The new supplemental application removed reviews by the City Planning and/or Mobility Divisions for most soft story projects and allowed them to be completed with the City’s regular Plan Check application.

In addition, the City instituted a new, simplified application for owners of tenant-occupied soft-story buildings that replaced the standard long form.

The City's program requires the retrofits to soft story buildings to be completed by September 2023.

If the owners of soft story buildings are dragging their feet, many of those who own the 92 unreinforced masonry buildings deemed vulnerable have long blown their November 2017 deadline to file evaluations.

No reports have been filed for 30 of the URM buildings, which are typically made of brick and cinderblock, making them vulnerable to collapse in an earthquake.

Fifty of the cases were closed, nine plan checks have been submitted, two permits have been issued and one retrofit has been completed.

Owners of 31 concrete tilt-up buildings -- a construction technique where the concrete elements such as walls and columns are formed horizontally on site -- had a December deadline. Eighteen have not complied.

Four of the cases were closed, six plan checks have been submitted, two permits have been issued and one retrofit has been completed.

Under the program, the retrofits for URM buildings must be completed by next month, while the retrofits to concrete tilt-up buildings must be completed in August of next year.

Larger buildings are given more time to complete the process.

The owners of 77 steel moment frame buildings -- buildings with the beams rigidly connected to the columns that proved to be vulnerable during the 1994 Northridge earthquake -- have until October of next year to submit their evaluations.

Three have had their cases closed. There has been no activity on the others.

Non-ductile concrete buildings -- older, brittle buildings that California began phasing out in the 1950s -- also have until October of next year to submit their reports.

Of the 62 building deemed potentially vulnerable, 15 have had their cases closed. There has been no activity on the others.

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

"The City of Santa Monica encourages property owners of potentially vulnerable buildings of all types to begin the work as soon as is feasible to protect their asset and for the overall safety of the community," Farrell said.

"Santa Monica’s retrofit program is one of the most comprehensive because the public’s safety is paramount as is our ability to recover quickly," Farrell said (for information on the program click here).

The last time the City passed laws requiring retrofits of soft story buildings was in the 1990s, but the mandatory retrofit effort quietly faded in the early 2000s amid the departure of key staff.

By 2013, the City had lost its list of approximately 2,000 possibly vulnerable buildings, according to report that year in the Los Angeles Times ("Santa Monica offers L.A. a cautionary tale on quake vigilance," November 14, 2013)

Stunned when told of the missing list, elected leaders vowed to take up the issue, leading to the 2017 retrofit law.

Months before the law was passed, Santa Monica became the first city in California to publicly post a list of addresses of possibly vulnerable buildings that should be evaluated for seismic risk ("Nearly 2,000 Buildings in Santa Monica at Risk in Earthquake," December 1, 2016).

"Buildings identified and placed on the list display characteristics such as age, appearance, construction material, method of design and construction, or lack of structural records that indicate strengthening may be necessary," according to the City's website.

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