After listening to complaints from owners of brick buildings downtown, the Torrance City Council postponed a "moment of truth" on a measure to reduce earthquake hazards while the city staff explores ways to pay for the costly repairs it would require.
The proposed ordinance, which is modeled after one in Los Angeles, would force the owners of 48 brick buildings built before 1933--almost all in downtown Torrance--to make their buildings more resistant to earthquakes or tear them down. The city estimates that repairs would cost $2.3 million, or an average of $47,000 per building.
Unless the buildings are strengthened, city officials estimate, 75% of them could be destroyed in a major earthquake on the San Andreas Fault, which many seismologists expect within 20 to 30 years. At the council meeting Tuesday, city staff presented slides from the comparatively minor 1941 earthquake which showed damage to brick buildings in Torrance.
Earthquakes pose two separate dangers to unreinforced brick buildings, according to city officials: The walls can fall like a pile of blocks knocked over by a child, and floors and roof can separate from the walls and come crashing down.
The 48 brick buildings in Torrance house 84 businesses, 369 employees and 234 residents.
'Got to Do Something'
"We are just sitting on a time bomb," said Councilman Mark Wirth. "We have a responsibility to deal with this as soon as possible."
Arguing that the cost of making repairs will not seem important after a major quake, Councilman Daniel W. Walker, who usually takes the side of business interests, recalled a visit to Coalinga shortly after a 1983 earthquake there.
"The day after, everyone there was just glad to be alive. We have got to do something," he declared.
In downtown Coalinga, 46 of 51 buildings were damaged and destroyed by the May 2, 1983, earthquake, which measured 6.7 on the Richter scale.
Mayor Katy Geissert warned opponents that postponing the measure is not an effort to "avoid the moment of truth, which we have to come to."
In opposing the ordinance, no one argued against the merits of reinforcing brick buildings, which typically involves anchoring the floors and roof to the walls and bracing the walls with metal links or additional interior walls.
"We feel it is necessary for public safety," said Joel McCloud, president of the Torrance Downtown Merchants' Assn., which has taken the lead in arguing that passage of the measure should be delayed.
Opponents of the measure said that property owners should have more than three or four years to complete repairs and that the city should find ways to defray costs through loan subsidies or other relief. In addition, some said the measure should include an appeals procedure to grant extensions in cases of economic hardship. Others wanted to see whether the state Legislature would provide assistance through tax credits or bond funds, which is under consideration.
A number of property owners voiced fears that repairs required in the downtown redevelopment area, where a number of the buildings are located, would give city officials the right to insist on design changes. The city's redevelopment policy gives the staff such powers when the cost of renovations exceeds half the value of the building.
Council members instructed staff to make sure earthquake safety measures are considered independently from design criteria.
New Report in Month
The city staff, which had presented a sketchy outline of ways to help pay for the repairs, was told to come back in a month with a more detailed report and recommendations.
The Torrance measure comes as a number of municipalities are enacting similar ordinances under the pressure of a state law that became effective in January. The law requires all jurisdictions to survey and list all pre-1933 buildings with the state Seismic Safety Commission by July, 1990, and to adopt ordinances to correct any hazard. In 1933 the Long Beach earthquake killed 127 people, injured 1,000 and destroyed 75% of the area's schools, all of which were built of brick. After the quake, building standards were tightened.
In the South Bay, Torrance has one of the highest inventories of buildings easily damaged by earthquakes because it is one of the area's oldest cities, according to Building Director Ralph Grippo.
Inglewood Deputy City Manager Norman Cravens said the city, which has 55 buildings constructed of unreinforced masonry, is drafting an earthquake hazard reduction measure and expects to bring it to the City Council in several months. San Pedro and Wilmington, which come under the Los Angeles ordinance, have between 500 and 600 such buildings, Grippo said.