TORRANCE — Many of the masonry buildings in Old Downtown Torrance may be quaint, but they would not be safe during a major earthquake.
That is the opinion of the city's building and safety director, who is proposing an ordinance that would require that those old brick buildings be reinforced to meet current minimum earthquake safety standards. A public hearing on the matter will be held on Jan. 28 by the Torrance City Council.
Director Ralph Grippo said he is proposing the ordinance as a result of a recent survey by his department. The study found that there are still about 30 buildings in the city that were built before the Long Beach earthquake in 1933 and could not withstand a major earthquake. Stricter construction standards were adopted statewide after that earthquake. He said those buildings are supported only by concrete, which would crumble during a major earthquake.
He said it could cost as much as $2.75 million to reinforce those buildings with steel beams and anchors to meet current safety standards.
Mexico City a Reminder
Grippo said the proposal is being presented now because the recent Mexico City earthquake served as a reminder that many buildings in the city remain unsafe.
"It is well documented that unreinforced masonry buildings present the greatest hazard with respect to collapse during a major earthquake," Grippo said.
Grippo noted that in the 1983 Coalinga earthquake, which measured 6.7 on the Richter scale, many masonry buildings were destroyed. Thirty of 40 masonry buildings there suffered at least 60% damage, according to a report by the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, he said.
"Unreinforced masonry structures have been the primary cause of death in past earthquakes," said Mel Green, a Manhattan Beach structural engineer who remodels historic buildings to meet current seismic standards. Green said the South Bay is particularly susceptible to earthquakes because the Inglewood-Newport fault runs through the area.
The only South Bay city that has adopted an ordinance for earthquake safety is Gardena. Passed in 1979, the ordinance requires owners of high-risk buildings to strengthen them within one year after they are notified; less hazardous buildings have up to three years, according to Community Development Director Hayward Fong. Gardena has identified only seven high-risk buildings, Fong said. Of the seven, four have been brought up to code and owners of the other three have been given extensions to complete repairs. Fong said he does not expect to find more than a dozen buildings in the city that do not meet minimum standards.
Los Angeles adopted an ordinance to reinforce its old buildings in 1981. Grippo said the draft of the proposed Torrance ordinance was patterned after the one in Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles law originally allowed owners up to 10 years to comply, but that was shortened in 1983 to three years from the time owners are notified.
To set a priority for repair, the Los Angeles ordinance puts buildings in one of five categories, which have been incorporated into the Torrance proposal. They are:
- Essential buildings, such as hospitals, fire and police stations and local government disaster operation centers.
- High-risk buildings, those not identified as essential and with occupancy of 100 or more.
- Medium-risk buildings, those with occupancy between 20 and 100.
- Low-risk buildings, structures with occupancy of fewer than 20.
- Historic buildings, those designated as such by federal, state or local jurisdictions.
None of the Torrance buildings identified as needing restructuring fall under the essential or historic categories, Grippo said.
He said he is proposing that the city help pay for strengthening the buildings, although plans and revenue sources have not been specified. He said upgrading buildings would cost between $5 and $12 a square foot.
Comply or Vacate
The ordinance would require owners to comply with the law or vacate or demolish the building.
The proposed ordinance focuses on Old Downtown Torrance, where many of the structures were built of the unreinforced brick commonly found in architecture of the 1920s and 1930s, Grippo said. Many of what were the city's first homes and factories, built on the east side after the city incorporated in 1921, still stand.
Grippo said many of those building were reinforced after the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, estimated at 6.3 on the Richter scale.
Additional repairs were made after a 1941 earthquake measuring 5.4 hit Torrance. The repairs, however, were primarily cosmetic, Grippo said, with concrete beams added and parapets removed. Steel reinforcement was not added, he said.
Some of the buildings that survived both earthquakes are on the city's list of 33 structures that may need reinforcement. After the former El Roi Tan Hotel--now apartments--at 1211 El Prado lost a wall in the 1941 earthquake, it was expected to be demolished.