TORRANCE — Saying there are still too many questions about who should foot the bill, the City Council this week called for more study of a staff proposal that would require all pre-1933 brick buildings to be reinforced for earthquake safety.
Mayor Jim Armstrong said he proposed sending the issue to the council's Community Planning and Design Committee after getting several protest letters from tenants and property owners. He said they were concerned that they might have to pay thousands of dollars just to find out whether their buildings were in compliance.
The ordinance would make property owners liable for all costs of compliance. City Building and Safety Director Ralph Grippo, who proposed the ordinance, said structural analyses would cost property owners about 50 cents a square foot. For example, he said, analysis of a 5,000-square-foot building would cost about $2,500. Grippo said repairs could cost between $5 and $12 a square foot.
Councilwoman Katy Geissert, chairwoman of the committee, said members will probably have to meet more than once before returning the proposal to the council for a vote. She said no committee meetings have been scheduled and the item probably will not be brought back to the council before the March 4 municipal election.
3 Seats at Stake
Three council seats are at stake in the election, but no officials or business owners interviewed suggested that election politics was a factor in the decision to study the proposal further. Geissert is running unopposed for mayor.
"It is much too controversial and complex to resolve in one meeting," she said after Tuesday's council meeting. "I think we were all prepared to listen but not prepared to make a decision."
Torrance Area Chamber of Commerce general manager Robert Seitz, who was among those asking that the matter be sent to committee, said he had received a number of calls from property owners and tenants who own businesses in the Old Downtown Torrance area, where the majority of the affected buildings are located.
Seitz said most business people support the idea of making buildings safer, but he said the city should be responsible for the initial engineering studies.
'Burden of Proof'
"If a property owner was to be given a notice of compliance, the burden of proof should be on the shoulders of the city, not the property owners," he said. "The property owners should not have to go to their own personal expense to prove that they should be exempt from the ordinance."
Seitz said he is also concerned that property owners who are required to reinforce their buildings may then be required to bring other areas of their property up to other current city codes, such as increasing the number of parking spaces, reducing the size of signs and providing facilities for the handicapped.
Many of those buildings are exempt from those requirements because the structures were built before those standards were imposed, Grippo said. He added that his only concern is making the buildings safe, not making them conform with other requirements.
Seitz said many tenants also are concerned that out-of-town landlords may not comply with an order and force them out of business. The proposed ordinance would require that buildings not in compliance be vacated.
Agrees With Council
Grippo said he agrees with the council's decision to refer the matter to committee. Whether the city should help property owners pay for the improvements is a "political decision," he said.
"If we can see our way clear to do it, then we should assist them," he said. "But as I see our budget, I don't see where the money is coming from."
Grippo said it could cost as much as $2.75 million to reinforce about 45 masonry buildings with steel beams and anchors. He said that only about $500,000 of $4.1 million in bonds issued by the city last year for downtown redevelopment projects remains. He said that money could be used to assist property owners, but that other downtown projects could use the money.
He said other options would be researched. Some cities have earthquake ordinances that provide help to building owners but none provide financial assistance for tenants, he said.
Must Cater to Owners
Implementing the proposed ordinance would also require an additional city expenditure for more staff, Grippo said. "Each building needs to be treated in a unique and customized manner," he said. "The owners must be catered to in a tactful yet positive public-relations style.
He is recommending hiring a consultant rather than part-time employees to coordinate the program.
Grippo said he is proposing the ordinance because buildings supported only by concrete could crumble during a major earthquake. Grippo noted that in the 1983 Coalinga earthquake, which registered 6.7 on the Richter scale, 30 of 40 masonry building were at least 60% destroyed.
He said some pre-1933 buildings in Torrance that were damaged in the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, which measured 6.3 on the Richter scale, were rebuilt with concrete beams. The 1941 Torrance earthquake, measuring 5.4, also caused some damage, but many of the repairs made after that were cosmetic and did not include steel beams.
Cities that have passed ordinances for earthquake safety include Gardena, in 1979, and Los Angeles, in 1981.