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Seismic Upgrade Plan Targets 80,000 Buildings : Quakes: But owners' costs, which could run into the millions, pose significant obstacle to city program.

November 26, 1995|By Doug Smith

Haunted by the possibility of a future earthquake far worse than the Northridge temblor, Los Angeles city officials are preparing a program of unparalleled dimensions for strengthening buildings--including 50,000 single-family homes.

But the cost--amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars, to be borne by businesses and households--presents a formidable political obstacle.

A package of ordinances to be submitted to the City Council in the coming months would call for retrofitting an estimated 80,000 residential and commercial buildings in a process that could last a decade or more. Supporters are convinced that such a program would someday save thousands of lives and billions of dollars.

Compliance with the standards would cost from $3,000 for a small single-family home to millions for a large commercial building.

Most of the suspect structures are in the older parts of the city south and east of the Santa Monica Mountains, and were spared the most violent shaking in the 6.7 Northridge earthquake of Jan. 17, 1994.

But because of the poor performance of several types of structures in recent earthquakes, engineers have concluded that thousands of buildings would fail during a large quake on a fault near Downtown--an event seismologists consider probable in the next 50 years, according to Richard Andrews, director of the California Office of Emergency Services.

The potential value of retrofitting was highlighted again last month when researchers at Stanford's Risk Management Solutions raised their damage estimates for a 7.0 quake on the Inglewood-Newport fault to $145 billion with 8,000 deaths.

Los Angeles City Councilman Hal Bernson, who represents the west San Fernando Valley and is the city's strongest seismic safety advocate, said he plans to push hard for adoption of the Building and Safety Department's plan.

"We've seen what happened after Northridge," Bernson said. "What if it was Downtown? There wouldn't be a city left there. We've got to move forward."

So far, deliberations on what to do about vulnerable buildings have been mainly technical, centering on how to codify complex seismic remedies.

In the next phase, building officials will face the more volatile task of deciding how hard they can push cash-strapped owners without touching off a political revolt.

The strategy taking shape combines voluntary and mandatory elements. Retrofitting would be mandatory to reduce the most urgent hazards--probably concrete buildings up to 17 stories and wood-frame apartments of two or more stories. For less dangerous buildings, the city is searching for funds to offer financial incentives, but would require retrofitting only when structures are sold or substantially improved.

Even limited mandatory retrofitting is likely to be opposed by many owners.

"If a building is built to code when it's built, I think it's pretty sad when they come back and say you have to do something to it," said Dan Faller, president of the Apartment Assn. of Southern California. "They put themselves up as being gods and they want to protect us. We don't need their protection."

Elected officials are wary of forcing financial hardships on their constituents.

"You never know what's going to happen when the council gets hold of it," Bernson said. "I don't know whether we're going to do it all, but we're sure going to give it our best shot."

Councilman Richard Alarcon, who heads the city's public safety committee, has convened a task force to seek financial help from the federal government, banks and insurance companies.

Without the incentives, Alarcon said, "some businesses could very well go out of business."

But Alarcon conceded that all the help the city can get will not cover the need.

"I think that in all likelihood there will be a series of ordinances and that some of them will be initiated before the incentives are created, and some of them will be held off in order to put some incentives in place," he said.

The city has already moved on the most startling and unexpected hazard highlighted by the Northridge quake by requiring owners to inspect steel-frame buildings and repair any damage. The buildings were long considered safe, but dozens were severely damaged in the temblor, raising the possibility of collapse in a larger quake. Although the repairs can cost several million dollars per building, they are considered "repairs," not mandatory retrofitting.

Immediately after the Northridge earthquake, the city identified 2,100 pre-1976 concrete tilt-up buildings (made of concrete slabs that are poured on the ground and lifted into place) in need of mandatory retrofitting. But because of delays in processing, it has sent notices ordering the work only to about a third of those, according to Karl Deppe, assistant chief of the Department of Building and Safety's building bureau.

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