The Los Angeles City Council has adopted an ordinance that gives owners of steel-frame buildings damaged in the Northridge earthquake nearly three years to fix their structures but imposes no inspection or repair guidelines.
Because studies are still under way to find the best way to fix the damaged frames, the ordinance adopted Wednesday allows owners to choose from several traditional methods to bring the structures--at the very least--back to pre-quake condition. The owners have the option of adding quake reinforcement.
Although the ordinance lacks guidelines for inspection and repair, city building and safety officials said that their department will check the buildings after the work is completed to ensure that the structures meet minimum safety standards.
"If owners don't do an adequate inspection job, we could force owners to redo the inspections," said Richard Holguin, assistant chief of the city's building bureau.
The three-year timetable for building owners to complete inspections and repairs also will allow state seismic officials time to devise new repair methods, said Karen Constine, chief of staff for Councilwoman Laura Chick, a member of the council's Ad Hoc Committee on Earthquake Recovery.
Constine said that the ordinance also will give owners more time to find financing for the repairs.
Councilman Hal Bernson, chairman of the committee, also defended the ordinance, saying: "It's going to be a hardship for a lot of building owners, but in the end it may turn out to be a benefit because it may save a building from collapse."
The damage that the 6.7-magnitude quake inflicted on steel-frame buildings surprised many engineers who believed that the frames would withstand seismic forces.
Widespread reports of cracks in the welded beam connections of high-rise and mid-size buildings launched several studies in universities and private firms to devise repair methods that will strengthen the connections. But state and local agencies have yet to come up with new technical standards.
For now, the ordinance adopted by the council applies only to about 400 commercial steel-frame buildings in the San Fernando Valley and West Los Angeles, where damage was most widespread. But it could be expanded to 600 residential and commercial buildings elsewhere in the city.
Since the inspection and repair ordinance was conceived, city officials have relaxed the proposed requirements to give building owners additional leeway to complete expensive work, Holguin said.
For instance, building and safety officials originally wanted to impose inspection guidelines and require owners to complete the inspections and repairs within two years after the owners receive a city notice, he said.
Instead, owners have six months after the receipt of a city notice to inspect the buildings and draft a repair plan. They have another three months to obtain repair permits and two additional years to complete the repairs.
The inspections alone could cost between $1,500 to $3,000 per beam connection. Repairs could cost an additional $15,000 to $22,000 per joint.
But city officials concede that the ordinance has weaknesses. For example, the city has yet to compile an accurate list of steel-frame buildings, and does not know when it will.
A building official spent several months last year identifying 755 steel-frame buildings by combing through computer records and making visual surveys.
A Times survey, however, found numerous steel-frame buildings that were not on the list.
Acknowledging that the list is incomplete, officials said they saw no reason to spend more time on it until the ordinance passed.
"We're going to do a very comprehensive survey," said department spokesman David Keim.
The potential for further delays was viewed as a plus by the Building Owners and Managers Assn. of Los Angeles, which pressed unsuccessfully for the repair period to be extended to five years.
Martha Cox-Nitikman, the association's manager of governmental affairs, said the current deadlines may place too much pressure on owners to engage engineers and contractors, get financing and move tenants.
Nonetheless, members of the building owners group view the ordinance as a positive step.
"This is a positive thing," Cox-Nitikman said. "Now there is a clear indication of what the city is going to do."
Although they also generally praised the ordinance, some engineers expressed concerns.
By leaving most critical decisions up to building owners and their engineers, the ordinance may expose building officials to problems "because it's likely that many engineers will have different concepts as to what an appropriate level of inspection is," said Ronald O. Hamburger of EQE International of San Francisco.
Some engineers, such as Rawn Nelson, former president of the Structural Engineers Assn. of California, fear that merely repairing some buildings to pre-quake condition will expose them to the possibility of collapse in a more severe earthquake.