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SMa.r.t. Column: The Urgency to Retrofit Earthquake-Deficient Buildings

Recent early-morning tremors off the Malibu coast, and the huge and terrible earthquake in Turkey and Syria have made us take another look at Santa Monica’s earthquake-retrofit program for vulnerable buildings. This program, started in 2017, identified buildings at risk of collapse in an earthquake and required them to be reinforced. It now seems that staff shortages are making it difficult for the city to enforce those 2017 earthquake-retrofit ordinances.

After the Northridge quake, the City compiled a list of at-risk buildings, and started a campaign to get them reinforced – or demolished. That effort resulted in repairs to many buildings throughout the city, but many remained untouched. In 2013, an article in the Los Angeles Times revealed that over the years the City’s effort had faded and was forgotten. The list of vulnerable buildings that the City had painstakingly assembled in the 1990s was, in fact, lost in the files and the post-Northridge retrofit program had long been stalled. Many buildings that should have been repaired or reinforced after the quake were left exposed to the chance of catastrophic damage in a future tremor.

After the exposé was published, the City funded a new study and eventually assembled another list of vulnerable buildings. In 2017 the city started a renewed seismic retrofit program, identified about 2,400 buildings that were potentially vulnerable, and began notifying property owners of the need to comply with the new seismic retrofit laws. All buildings were classified according to their structural type, and different categories were given separate deadlines to complete the work. Some categories were given up to 20 years for completion.
Since then a large number of buildings have been repaired or retrofitted. Others, with structural features that gave the owners longer time-frames for repair under the retrofit program, remain without structural upgrades. 

Last year, an Information Item report by staff to City Council (https://tinyurl.com/rynp4wws) suggested that the city may have trouble enforcing all of the requirements in the 2017 ordinances, and may need to hire more staff to ensure compliance by owners of vulnerable buildings. Many of these owners have missed preliminary deadlines for parts of the work, such as structural analyses, which are required under the law. These analyses and project plans, said the staff, are “critical…in ensuring timely completion of projects. However, enforcement has not been actively applied at these stages.” The report points to the Code Enforcement Division’s “current staffing limitations and varying priorities” in explaining the lack of enforcement of these preliminary obligations by building owners. 

A large portion of the buildings identified as vulnerable–most of them two-story apartment buildings–must have their retrofits completed by 2025. The staff report suggests that the department will need to increase staffing to ensure that the city can enforce compliance with the law. Our own, informal, experience suggests that staffing is currently so short that new projects may be experiencing significant delays in obtaining permits. This is causing problems for applicants and staff members alike, and the ripple effects may be spreading into the earthquake-retrofit program. In a SMa.r.t. article from January, 2017 (https://tinyurl.com/3z8h7kxs) we discussed the enormous workload that would fall on city staff’s shoulders once the flood of seismic upgrade permits began. These predictions seem to be coming true.

We have all seen the catastrophic earthquake pictures two weeks ago streaming out of Turkey and Syria: the flattened buildings, the staggering traumatized freezing survivors, and the hopeless excavations. The pain is compounded by the daily horror we have already been seeing for a whole year in Ukraine: the same unsurvivable pancaked buildings, the same crying survivors, the same broken mashup of glass, concrete and furniture avalanching down the face of buildings hit by missiles. While these two tragedies seem far away, they are closer than we think. Many of our readers were living here in 1994 when we experienced the 6.7 Northridge earthquake that resulted in 57 deaths and severely damaged the Northwest quadrant of our City. 

Fortunately, most Santa Monicans live in low-rise wood-framed buildings that are generally more survivable than older concrete or masonry buildings. Nonetheless, earthquakes are a real but random danger for our City. While we have not seen a big one in almost three decades, this means that statistically every year that goes by without one brings us closer to the certainty of being slammed by a big one. There is an urgency to use this “grace” period of unknown duration to actively prepare for the  inevitable.  

With final deadlines approaching, a large number of retrofit permit applications, including those which missed earlier deadlines, are likely to show up at the last minute just before their respective cutoff dates. This may coincide with the increased workload that will surely result from the State’s requirement that the city approve about 9,000 new units in the next 8 years. The staff may find it impossible to adequately process and enforce all the earthquake retrofit applications, and the city will feel pressured to extend the time frames for the work, in a form of “amnesty” that would, in effect, allow deficient buildings to remain deficient longer. The fact that many of the deficient buildings that collapsed in Turkey had been given a similar “amnesty” should give us pause.

It is now six years since the earthquake-retrofit ordinance was passed, and it is incumbent on the city to see if the owners of these buildings have been following the plan. The city must resolve any staffing issues causing delays, and it must check whether the owners of vulnerable buildings on its list have been following the rules, including meeting vitally-important preliminary deadlines. This is a core obligation for the city.

The importance of ensuring that owners of vulnerable buildings are complying with the law, including preliminary time limits, can’t be overstated. The city, building owners, and managers must take this responsibility seriously to protect the public and ensure that our built environment remains safe and functional for generations to come. 

Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA & Planning Commissioner, and Daniel Jansenson, Architect, Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission.

Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow: Thane Roberts, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Architect, Dan Jansenson, Architect & Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission, Samuel Tolkin Architect & Planning Commissioner, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA & Planning Commissioner, Michael Jolly, AIR-CRE.

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