LA PUENTE — The row of sun-baked brick buildings along Main Street has been standing since the 1920s, when the town was a ranching and farming community.
Although strip commercial areas with spacious parking lots and shopping areas have sprouted up in other parts of the city, the old business district, bounded by Glendora Avenue, Old Valley Boulevard, and North 5th Street, has remained much the same.
But now the city is warning the owners of 23 unreinforced masonry structures downtown that their buildings may be unsafe during an earthquake and must be brought up to city standards. The buildings, clustered in the oldest part of La Puente and constituting most of the downtown area, would be torn down if left unrepaired.
To help owners comply with the city's uniform building code, which requires the upgrading of all masonry structures built before 1933, La Puente is offering financial assistance in evaluating and renovating the buildings.
Under a policy adopted by the City Council on June 16, the city will use federal community block grants to help hire a private architectural and engineering firm to survey the buildings and determine what work needs to be done. It also will offer owners low-interest loans to rehabilitate, demolish or rebuild.
The buildings are beginning to show signs of strain from age and the elements, but customers still frequent the shops, many of which have been in business for several decades.
Ralph Osborn and Dwain Laughlin have owned and operated a dry-cleaner, a barbershop, and a dress shop on Main between 1st and 2nd streets for 37 years.
Down the block, Leandro LuJan, 58, runs an antique shop filled from floor to ceiling with collectibles. Built in 1910, it used to be the city's first five-and-dime store, he said.
"It is very, very expensive" to upgrade brick buildings, said Community Development Director Rick Hartmann, who proposed the project. "The city of La Puente wants to take partnership in that responsibility."
Hartmann said the cost of renovation could run as high as $20 per square foot, and could be a financial burden on some owners, who have more than one building.
"It's going to cost me a tremendous amount of money," said Arlie Ellison, 69, who owns five buildings on Main Street.
"I don't know what I'm going to do, because I don't have the money necessary," he said, standing in front of La Puente Shoe Repair, across the street from the barbershop.
Citing two temblors that shook the greater Los Angeles area June 12, Hartmann said: "It showed me as well as the city and business owners that this reality of an 8-plus earthquake could crumble most of the downtown."
But Laughlin doubts that his buildings are unsafe.
"The buildings have been here a long time. There have been earthquakes, but we're still here," Laughlin said while shaving a customer.
Osborn, La Puente's planning commissioner, agreed, saying there was "surprisingly little damage" after the October 1987 Whittier earthquake.
Under a state law passed in 1986, all cities in designated earthquake zones must prepare by Jan. 1, 1990, a list of all masonry commercial buildings built before 1933, when the state's first building code was enacted.
The cities must also formally notify the owners that their type of building is an earthquake hazard. The law, however, does not force owners to upgrade their buildings. La Puente has adopted Los Angeles County's building code, which does require upgrading.
Several San Gabriel Valley cities, including Alhambra, Claremont and Pasadena, are considering ordinances for upgrading buildings without financial assistance to the owners, according to officials in those cities. Ordinances have been approved in Azusa, along with Los Angeles, Long Beach, Santa Monica and Santa Ana.
La Puente will set aside $137,502 in federal block grants for a one-year period to fund up to 50% of the cost of evaluating the buildings to determine the cost-effectiveness of renovation.
In addition, the city has access to $480,000 in block grants designated for economic development projects, Hartmann said.
Owners in La Puente have 270 days after notification to decide whether to participate in the federal block grant program.
Hartmann said that, if owners ignore the notices, the city would tear down the building as a health and safety measure and bill the owner. He added that it may be more economically feasible to tear down deteriorated buildings that cannot be easily upgraded.
"We've gone into a couple of buildings that we would demolish without consideration," he said. "The interior walls had significant cracks, the mortar was gone, and the walls were leaning."
But the age of the brick buildings may be what ultimately saves them.