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Calling in the Reinforcer : Volunteer Sees Quake-Damaged Condos Rebuilt on Time, With No Subsidy

August 07, 1996|JON D. MARKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The pink impatiens are in bloom outside the condominium complex on Natick Avenue in Sherman Oaks. The stucco looks neatly starched. An electric generator snores gently in the basement.

For those blessings, once taken for granted, residents are breathing a Si of relief.

Simon Greitzer is part Paul Bunyan and part Santa Claus to his peers in this building. Much more of a hero to them--and many public officials--than an Olympic athlete could ever be.

Almost single-handedly over two years, the slender 82-year-old wrestled his condo complex back from a quake that had all but destroyed it. With pluck and charm, brains and tenacity, he quietly led the rebirth of an entire community once so humbled by nature that it had earned the nickname "ghost town."

Back in January 1994, before anyone had ever heard the term "red tag," the titanic shift in a previously unknown fault beneath Northridge shoved the fate of thousands of people in thousands of untold directions. Some of their stories will remain unsung.

Not Si's.

*

Si Greitzer has a wall of fame in the den of his condo: nearly 20 photographs and fancy certificates commemorating 50 years of pitching in to help the chief of police, the Board of Supervisors, Superior Court judges and the governor. Below them, in a bookcase, rest seven neatly typed volumes of his work on county grand juries.

*

Half a day after the Jan. 17 quake shook the San Fernando Valley from its slumber, one neighbor recalled, a Los Angeles city building inspector slapped a green tag on his Natick Avenue building, allowing the condo owners to reenter the smashed-up structure and go on with their lives.

Greitzer didn't believe him, the neighbor says, so the next day Greitzer found a structural engineer who certified the place as uninhabitable.

Indeed, it turned out that Natick and the next thoroughfare west, Willis Street, were ground zero for some of the temblor's worst destruction.

Of 30 multifamily dwellings, at least 25 looked as if they had lost a war. Fully armed National Guard troops patrolled the two streets for a week.

The area's United Parcel Service driver, Mike Goodrich, recalls a Stygian tableau of shattered windows and teetering structures--some occupied by lost souls who had nowhere else to go. He refused to enter most, leaving directions to the local UPS distribution center in mailboxes.

"I wasn't going to risk my life to deliver someone's Spiegel package," he said.

Nearly all apartment dwellers cleared out, but condominium owners were stuck. Some condo associations bickered and battled over their next move and took more than a year to form a strategy.

Not at his condo building. Within a week, its board deputized Greitzer to be their lone agent to deal with insurers, contractors, the city and the federal government--and he went to work.

Even for Greitzer, this was a tall order. He had run factories before but didn't know a shear wall from a schmear on the wall.

*

Soon, however, he was discussing how much No. 3 and No. 9 rebar to tie into reinforcing columns in the garage and could convince his fellow pensioners to upgrade to double-paned windows ("only $90,000 extra!" he said.)

He ran intensive background checks on every building contractor, haggled over the contract for three months, pored over every invoice, demanded crush tests on every load of cement and found that his most important task was persuading the building's insurer of the need to cut its $4.5 million in checks promptly so he could rebuild fast.

Fellow condo owners "scattered like the four winds" during the reconstruction, Greitzer says, but he returned to his beloved building from a tiny rental in Burbank to badger and rally the contractor 12 to 16 hours a day. On many days, 40-man crews hammered his dream into shape.

"He wouldn't let go!" said his wife, Rose.

*

The rest of the street, at first, was not as fortunate.

Many of the apartment complexes, even before the quake, were rundown stucco boxes from the 1950s and '60s. Some were owned by mom-and-pop investors who had bought in during the real estate boom of the late 1980s and were now sitting on what the industry calls "upside-down" mortgages: They owed more than the structures were worth.

Not long after the quake, a few farsighted entrepreneurs could see that this ghost town just had to be repopulated. It was too close to shopping on Ventura Boulevard, too close to the freeways, too central to the Valley to simply waste away.

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One investment outfit, PCS Property Management of Culver City, bought 11 quake-damaged apartment houses in Sherman Oaks and is in the process of buying or building two more, according to a company official.

Experts believe the firm bought the complexes from grateful banks at 50 cents on the dollar. A Los Angeles Housing Department official says PCS then took advantage of a city offer to provide $35,000 in rehabilitation loans per apartment unit in the "ghost towns" at interest rates from 0% to 3%.

By January of this year, PCS Vice President Keith Corneliuson said, the firm had opened six apartment buildings on Willis and Natick alone and has already rented 90% of its units.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who helped lead the quake-recovery effort as a city councilman, said it was "a tribute to the vitality of Sherman Oaks" that the streets have risen from the ashes.

*

Greitzer, a staunch Republican, takes great pride in noting that his condo association needed no government handout. The job was finished ahead of schedule and so far under budget that everyone got their insurance deductible back.

So is Greitzer happy as he strides the now-sparkling street?

Not entirely, he admits. The man lauded by an old friend, county Supervisor Mike Antonovich, as a "first-class citizen," said he misses the work.

"I'm looking for a new challenge," he said. "That would be a lifesaver. I'm not ready to put my heels up and watch TV all day long. Tell Antonovich that Si's getting itchy."

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