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WAITING FOR THE QUAKE : At Risk: Public Buildings and Dwellings : Imperiled Structures Total 13,000 in 2 Counties : Codes: 21 of 85 cities in Los Angeles County have seismic ordinances aimed at unreinforced masonry structures. The laws differ widely from city to city.

November 05, 1989|PENELOPE McMILLIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Times survey of city and county officials in Los Angeles and Ventura counties shows about 13,000 unreinforced masonry buildings have been identified.

The largest number are in the city of Los Angeles, which has 7,991 brick commercial and residential structures, followed by Long Beach with 565, Pasadena with 500 and Alhambra with 330.

Of the 85 cities in Los Angeles County, 21 have seismic safety ordinances in place, and a half dozen have upgraded their building codes. Another 11 cities, including Whittier, Beverly Hills and Alhambra, have laws under consideration, according to officials, while eight said they are following the Los Angeles County seismic safety ordinance passed in 1987.

The ordinances differ by the amount of time given owners to either upgrade or demolish, ranging from 270 days in Huntington Park to three years in Los Angeles. The severity of enforcement varies as well. Long Beach passed the first seismic upgrading law in the county, in 1971, for example, but under its provisions officials cannot take action against recalcitrant owners until 1991, according to the city's superintendent of building and safety, Eugene Zeller. The city has 565 unreinforced buildings, Zeller added, and so far, "most are not done."

The city of Downey, which gave owners a year to upgrade about a dozen unreinforced buildings in the late 1970s, has done no enforcement and does not know who has or has not complied, building official Bill Makshanoff said.

The city of Los Angeles' 1981 ordinance says buildings must be vacated or demolished if owners fail to meet their deadlines. But since many of the residential apartment buildings involved have hundreds of tenants paying among the lowest rents in the city, officials are unwilling to order them vacated, according to Carl Deppe, the earthquake enforcement chief for the city's Department of Building and Safety.

"We now pursue the owners in court," he said. About 14 cases have been referred to court and another 260 are being prepared, Deppe said.

Not all unreinforced masonry buildings are covered by most of the ordinances. Los Angeles city and county ordinances address only "bearing wall" structures, meaning those where the unreinforced masonry walls support the floors and the roofs.

They do not cover pre-1934 buildings with a concrete or steel frame that have unreinforced masonry in "nonbearing" walls, such as along corridors or stairwells. Officials believe Long Beach is the only city in the county that includes them.

"The reason it's hazardous is they could pop out and fall down," said Deppe. "We've just completed a survey and found 1,100. At least 200 are in the seven- to 13-story range."

Los Angeles City Hall, the county Hall of Justice and the county Museum of Natural History are examples of this type of construction. Deppe said about 800 of the buildings in Los Angeles are located downtown or in surrounding areas, with the rest in older areas of San Pedro, Westwood and Hollywood.

The city did its survey to comply with the 1986 state Unreinforced Masonry Building Act, which requires local governments to inventory all pre-1933 structures and report the number to the state by January, 1990.

Reinforcement has progressed slowly throughout the county, even in areas that sustained substantial damage in the 1987 Whittier earthquake.

The city of Pasadena, where officials estimate there are more than 500 brick buildings, has no earthquake safety ordinance, and only requires owners to upgrade if they are planning renovations, or if a new business is moving in.

Often, the unreinforced masonry buildings are the oldest or most historic structures in their communities. Whole sections of the Old Pasadena district, for example, are lined with brick commercial buildings.

Some people worry that seismic upgrading could destroy charming neighborhoods. Melvyn Green, an engineering consultant who has done surveys of unreinforced masonry buildings in several cities, said: "If we tear them down and build whatever is trendy today, two years from now it's going to look kind of grim."

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