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Pasadena Called Slow to Obey Quake Safety Law

July 13, 1989|IRENE CHANG | Times Staff Writer

State officials are concerned that although Pasadena has the largest number of unreinforced masonry buildings in the San Gabriel Valley, it is slow to comply with a state earthquake safety law.

The Unreinforced Masonry Building Act, adopted in 1986, requires all cities and counties in earthquake zones to notify owners of commercial brick buildings constructed before 1933 that the structures are unsafe, and to report the number of buildings to the state by Jan. 1, 1990.

Eight other San Gabriel Valley cities, including Monterey Park, Azusa, Irwindale and South Pasadena, have adopted building codes that require owners to make needed repairs. But Pasadena has neither adopted codes nor reported to the state, with the deadline less than six months away. State officials say it is the largest California city that has not reported its progress.

There are about 40,000 commercial buildings of unreinforced masonry (URMs) in California, occupied by 1.2 million people during peak hours. Seismic experts believe that unreinforced brick buildings pose a severe hazard during earthquakes because masonry cannot absorb rocking and swaying motion, and the ceilings and floors are not anchored to the walls .

Pasadena is "sticking out like a sore thumb at this point," said Fred Turner, a structural engineer for the state Seismic Safety Commission in Sacramento. "We don't want to assume a threatening role in this, but we want to know why cities such as Pasadena are not responding."

The law also requires cities to establish programs to lessen the possibility of earthquake damage, which could include ordinances requiring owners to strengthen unreinforced buildings.

Harriet McGinley, an administrative officer in Pasadena's Planning, Housing and Building Services Department, said the city is behind because the department is short-staffed.

Pasadena's building code does not require owners to upgrade unreinforced buildings unless they are already undergoing structural changes, and, McGinley said, the city will wait until a new building official is hired to consider making URM upgrading mandatory.

McGinley said, however, that Pasadena has made some progress toward meeting the law's deadline: It has identified 519 unreinforced buildings, and in two weeks a private engineering firm will survey them for structural weak spots.

In the San Gabriel Valley, Claremont and Covina are a few steps behind, having just started counting the numbers of unreinforced buildings in their areas.

Statewide, 127 cities and counties encompassing 34% of the population in earthquake zones have reported no progress in complying with the URM law. Thirty-one cities and counties, representing 30% of the population in quake zones, have established safety programs for unreinforced buildings.

In several cities, such programs include grants and loans to owners wishing to upgrade their buildings.

Azusa and El Monte are offering owners of unreinforced buildings loans to offset some of the costs of mandatory facade-redesign projects aimed at revitalizing the downtown areas.

In Baldwin Park, financial assistance is available only for low- or moderate-income owners.

La Puente is using federal block grants to subsidize the costs of engineering for the city's 23 unreinforced buildings, and will offer loans to owners to upgrade them.

Upgrading an unreinforced brick building can cost as much as $20 per square foot--$120,000 for the average 6,000-square-foot building. The cost is why some city officials say they hesitate to force owners to bring their structures up to code.

"We're reluctant to have a program if we aren't giving the financial assistance," said Konradt Bartlam, Pomona's manager of development services. "It becomes an economic consideration. There is obviously the concern that any ordinance not be too overburdening."

Pasadena's delayed response concerns one member of the Seismic Safety Commission, who said Pasadena, the largest city in the San Gabriel Valley, should lead rather than follow smaller cities that are aggressively promoting earthquake safety in unreinforced buildings.

"We hope that completing the inventory will not discharge them from all obligations," said Wilfred Iwan, an earthquake engineering professor at Caltech. "That would be an extremely unfortunate attitude towards the problem. There are people whose lives are at risk, and I would hope that they would take the initiative to ensure the safety of their citizens."

No Answer

Iwan said Pasadena Mayor William Thomson had not answered his May 18 letter that said the city is one of the most vulnerable to earthquakes in the state. The letter said the city probably had more than 519 unreinforced buildings, because it only counted those with load-bearing walls, whereas the state law covers all types of URMs. Iwan estimated there were 900 unreinforced buildings in Pasadena.

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