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Some Northridge Quake Wounds Are Yet to Heal

Despite a swift recovery effort after the deadly temblor a decade ago, some properties are still waiting to be rebuilt.

January 17, 2004|Hector Becerra and Doug Smith | Times Staff Writers

Ten years ago today, the 13-story Panorama Towers shook and rocked and cracked along with the rest of Los Angeles, damaged but not destroyed by the Northridge earthquake.

Though the Panorama City building was salvageable, repairs stalled and the tenants all moved on.

Today the building remains almost as it was then, an empty space behind a mosaic of plywood sheathing. A simple sign announces: "For sale/lease/Build to Suit."

It bears silent testimony to a little-noticed facet of the Northridge earthquake, the buildings left behind in what was otherwise a remarkably swift recovery.

Rebuilding after the state's most costly natural disaster required $25 billion in insurance payouts and government assistance and $15 billion more spent by victims.

At its peak, in the three years following the quake, the recovery process turned the San Fernando Valley into a vast construction zone with portable toilets and a haze of plaster dust visible on nearly every street.

Great public works projects were accomplished with extraordinary energy.

The once-soaring intersection of the Golden State and Antelope Valley freeways was rebuilt; the collapsed Santa Monica Freeway was reopened within five months. The Coliseum and Los Angeles City Hall were rehabilitated at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. Large portions of the Northridge Fashion Center mall were demolished and rebuilt. High-rise buildings across the region were peeled open to have their girders re-welded.

Today, tens of thousands of damaged structures have been repaired or rebuilt.

All but one of the nearly 1,200 notorious red-tagged buildings -- judged too dangerous to occupy -- have been brought up to standard or demolished. The only holdout is the city's abandoned St. Vibiana's Cathedral, where work is expected to begin next month to turn the building into a performing arts center.

Los Angeles city building officials processed nearly 69,000 permits to repair offices, apartments, houses and other buildings and 20,000 to rebuild from scratch.

According to an analysis of electronic records, the speed of the recovery can be read in the slope of those permits: 59,000 the year of the quake, 22,000 the year after, 6,000 in 1996 and 1,000 in 1997.

Other cities logged thousands of permits as well. In the best examples of government and private-sector collaboration, some neighborhoods look better today than they did 10 years ago.

But, the fact that a building is no longer red-tagged does not always mean it has been repaired or rebuilt. Many buildings have either been demolished, their lots left fallow, or, like the Panorama Towers, sealed.

The state office building at First Street and Broadway in downtown Los Angeles is one example, declared unsafe and standing empty to this day.

A UCLA study released this month found that the lapses in rebuilding have been more prevalent in poorer areas, especially in Latino neighborhoods, where property owners were less likely to be eligible for loan-based government assistance and more likely to face obstacles of language and expertise. The report also concluded that government assistance was better able to help revive single-family homes than apartment buildings.

There's no definitive record of how many earthquake-damaged structures have not been replaced. City officials stopped tracking the rebuilding process a few years ago. The UCLA researchers estimated that as many as 10% of the red-tagged buildings were not rebuilt.

These physical reminders of the Northridge earthquake have receded into L.A.'s pockmarked landscape, largely indistinguishable now except to those whose memories or fortunes are attached to them.

A vacant lot on Alvarado Street, just around the corner from Sunset Boulevard, used to be a four-plex.

Its owner, a Dutch investor named Davoud Ermia, was in Holland on Jan. 17, 1994. He had intended to build a medical building on the site, but said he was rattled by his tenants' narrow escape in the quake.

"I was very afraid something [might] happen to our people that live there," he said.

He had the red-tagged building demolished and sold the lot at a loss.

Still vacant, it sold again last year. The new owner, Yong W. Juhn, looked into a government subsidy, but concluded it would take too long. Now he's applying to the city to build low-income housing for senior citizens.

Even in some of the city's most well-to-do neighborhoods, high in the Santa Monica Mountains, the rebuilding is incomplete.

One vacant lot remains on Beverly Ridge Drive, a street that had five red-tagged houses. Another is on Java Drive, a two-block spur off Mulholland Drive.

The reasons the former houses were not rebuilt are diverse and often elusive.

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