Fearing economic disaster for downtown Ventura, a City Council committee has backed away from a proposed ordinance that would have required costly earthquake upgrading beginning next year for 145 unreinforced masonry structures.
In a report to be released tomorrow, the three council members on the committee recommend making only minimal repairs over a longer period of time and even pose the possibility of not mandating any structural upgrading.
"Should we beat the earthquake by killing our downtown?" asked Councilman John McWherter, one of the committee members. "The owners of the buildings just don't have the money for this."
Even so, a group of downtown merchants and property owners says it is has hired a Santa Barbara earthquake expert to help them fight even a watered-down ordinance when the Ventura City Council considers the subject at a Dec. 12 meeting.
They contend that even the less-stringent requirements--which the city estimates would cost $3.07 to $10.94 a square foot and could total almost $5 million--would drive up rents and force many businesses along economically shaky Main Street to close.
"I think it puts the nail in the coffin," said Virginia Gould, a spokeswoman for several downtown property owners. "We have hung on by our teeth for a long time, but I don't think we could stand this."
The consultant, Stanley H. Mendes, who has served as a structural engineer for numerous public schools, hospitals and churches in Santa Barbara County over the last several decades, said that research on last year's Whittier earthquake indicates that upgraded buildings did not hold up as well as previously thought.
"It makes sense to me to just back off and learn as much as we can from Los Angeles," Mendes said. "There's a lot to be gained by waiting."
But Ventura building officials, who have called unreinforced masonry structures "one of the city's largest life-safety threats," say the hazards of brick buildings have been well documented and can be minimized by making basic structural additions, such as strengthening the joints between walls, roofs and floors.
Although a state law passed in 1986 requires only that cities notify owners of unreinforced masonry buildings that repairs may be needed, Ventura officials say they expect the state to impose mandatory upgrading orders in the future if local communities do not take the initiative.
"I still think the more we can do to the buildings, the better off we'll be," said city building official Bob Prodoehl. "But if the bare minimum is all we can afford to do, then I'm all for that."
The city began bracing for tremors in 1985 when the South Pasadena-based structural engineers, Kariotis & Associates, were hired to survey all of Ventura's unreinforced masonry buildings and prepare recommendations for upgrading them.
That study, completed in May, 1987, recommended that the city adopt an ordinance similar to that of Los Angeles, where in 1981 officials targeted 7,900 buildings for major structural upgrading to be completed before 1992.
Most of Ventura's hazardous buildings are concentrated in the downtown area, primarily on Main Street, but also on Santa Clara Street, Thompson Boulevard and Ventura Avenue.
City officials were presented with two alternatives for strengthening the unreinforced masonry, which is considered by most engineers as the building material least resistant to temblors.
"Level I" repairs were described as the minimum upgrading necessary for public safety and included reinforcing joints, bracing parapets and anchoring walls into the building's foundation. The cost for such repairs were estimated to average $4.80 a square foot, according to a report by Howard F. Stupp & Associates, Camarillo-based structural engineers.
"Level II" repairs, which were described as being capable of keeping property economically viable after a quake, included all of the above as well as testing the strength of existing masonry and repairing existing cracks. Such upgrading was estimated to cost an average of $6.58 a square foot, the Stupp report said.
After several meetings with building owners, Community Development Director Everett Millais recommended the adoption of an ordinance calling for Level II repairs. The upgrading, which would apply only to commercial structures and large apartment buildings, would be initiated within a year.
"We view downtown Ventura as a vital resource," Millais wrote to downtown merchants. "It is a primary factor in what makes Ventura unique. We cannot afford to lose this resource as the result of a major seismic event."
But then on June 20, the night that council members were poised to make a decision, they were handed a 17-page packet from former U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Robert Nason, who contends that brick buildings do not pose a significantly greater hazard than other structures during an earthquake.