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Owners of 74 Masonry Buildings Ordered to Meet Quake Standards

February 28, 1988|DARYL KELLEY | Times Staff Writer

Priests at historic Rancho Dominguez near Carson were stunned last week when notified that their Mediterranean-style seminary has to be fixed up, torn down or abandoned by 1991 unless they can prove it is structurally sound.

Owners of a popular Topanga Canyon restaurant and bar, once the community's elementary school and its American Legion hall for years, also received a form letter bearing the same message.

And, on bustling Florence Avenue near Huntington Park, grocer Mario Fernandez and seamstress Maria Partida were trying to determine whether landlords will spend tens of thousands of dollars to rebuild their shops as required under a new Los Angeles County earthquake ordinance.

Likely to Collapse

In each case, the owners were informed that their buildings--if not reinforced with steel bars and secured to floors and roofs--would likely collapse during a severe earthquake.

During the last 10 days, Los Angeles County has mailed notices to the owners of 74 pre-1934 masonry buildings that engineers say are among the most dangerous in the county's unincorporated areas if their brick and block walls have not been reinforced.

Since the Long Beach earthquake killed more than 100 people in 1933, the county has required that all new construction be reinforced to better withstand earthquakes. Rarely is such structural strengthening found in buildings erected before that disastrous temblor, county engineers say.

About 80% of the 74 buildings are shops, stores, restaurants, offices and apartment houses located in the Firestone area south of Huntington Park or along busy commercial strips in East Los Angeles.

Three are small brick churches in East Compton, Altadena and the Athens area north of Gardena. One, built in the style of an Alpine chalet, is a flower shop on Whittier Boulevard, shuttered since it was damaged in the Whittier Narrows quake in October.

High-Risk Buildings

Almost all are made of brick, although many sport fine stucco facades that make them appear much newer than they are.

"We consider these the high-risk buildings" because of their construction and the large number of people who live, work, shop or pray in them each day, said engineer Abe Hamad, chief of the county's earthquake safety program.

The county has identified another 210 old masonry buildings--also concentrated in the Firestone and East Los Angeles areas--that will have to be rebuilt by 1994, Hamad said. Notices will be sent to owners in five increments during the next 3 1/2 years. The ordinance applies only to apartment houses with at least three units and buildings that accommodate significant numbers of people--not to single-family homes.

Even with the required structural strengthening, which would cost between $4 and $10 a square foot or an average of $28,000 for a 4,000-square-foot store, the buildings will not meet standards for new structures, Hamad said.

Nor will the required minimum improvements "necessarily prevent loss of life or injury" during an earthquake, the county notice says, suggesting that owners "may wish to explore the use of higher standards" when engineers inspect their buildings.

Modeled After L.A. Code

But the required improvements, modeled after those imposed by the City of Los Angeles in 1981, will probably keep the buildings from crumbling in a heap when a big temblor strikes, Hamad said.

If Los Angeles' experience is an indication, most of the unreinforced masonry structures in the county will be rebuilt. City engineer Allen Asakura estimated that about 85% of the 7,900 masonry buildings affected by the Los Angeles ordinance will survive a 1992 reconstruction deadline.

Likewise, several owners who received notices last week said they intend to rebuild.

At the 204-year-old Rancho Dominguez, sandwiched between Carson and Long Beach on Alameda Street, Father John Raab said the Catholic church hopes to shore up the red-tiled seminary where nine priests live and thousands of youngsters a year attend religious retreats.

The 61-year-old seminary was reinforced with steel rods after the 1933 earthquake closed it for a year, but it still sustained numerous cracks along the roof line and four cracked columns in its chapel during the Whittier earthquake, Raab said.

Cost Undetermined

A structural engineer who recently examined the seminary said it does not fully meet the county's new standards, but the cost of reinforcing it has not been determined.

"If the cost is too high, we may have to ask ourselves, 'Do we close the Dominguez Seminary,' " Raab said shortly after receiving the county notice. But a day later, after checking with an architect, he said, "It doesn't seem to be so serious a matter."

In the Malibu area, 6 miles up Topanga Canyon Boulevard from Pacific Coast Highway, owners of the stout old elementary school that is the fashionable Shemrun restaurant said they also expect that building to survive the new code.

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