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L.A. council members want statewide measure for quake safety funding

LaBonge and Englander want their colleagues to back a statewide ballot measure that would help fund local seismic safety efforts.

November 04, 2013|By Rosanna Xia and Rong-Gong Lin II
  • A Bullock's department store sits in ruins after the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Two Los Angeles City Council members are calling for their colleagues to back a statewide ballot measure that provides funding to cities for “earthquake safety improvements."
A Bullock's department store sits in ruins after the 1994 Northridge… (Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles…)

Two Los Angeles City Council members are calling for their colleagues to back a statewide ballot measure that provides funding to cities for "earthquake safety improvements," including helping property owners strengthen potentially dangerous buildings that could collapse in a major temblor.

The resolution, proposed Friday by Tom LaBonge and seconded by Mitch Englander, asks the City Council and Mayor Eric Garcetti to support or sponsor state legislation that would help fund local seismic safety efforts.

No such statewide measure exists, but LaBonge and Englander recently asked the city to report back on how the city could provide loans or help finance the retrofit of wooden apartment buildings or "soft" ground floors and older concrete buildings.

LaBonge said a statewide bond program is a good way to get regional support for the issue. "Let's say we're the only ones to do something, but an earthquake hits in the Central Valley, and Fresno is wiped out — the state is still in a jam," he said. "I think we've got to have a statewide program ... we all have to be prepared for the future."

Los Angeles officials have known about the dangers of concrete and wooden soft-story buildings for years, but concerns about costs thwarted earlier efforts in L.A. to identify and force property owners to retrofit their buildings. Many owners say they shouldn't have to pay for expensive fixes on their own. The costs of an engineering assessment of a single building could be tens of thousands of dollars or more.

Englander, who served as chief of staff to the last councilman who pushed to revive the retrofit issue, has said it's unreasonable to create an "unfunded mandate" without looking into financial assistance for property owners.

State bond measures have been approved by voters in the past, including one in 1990 that created a fund to help retrofit state and local government buildings. A 1996 bond act following the Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes was approved to help retrofit or replace state-owned highway and toll bridges.

LaBonge, who also submitted motions to look into cataloging the city's old concrete buildings and wooden soft-story apartment buildings, said that if the City Council approves his resolution, he would consider a ballot measure for the November elections in 2014 or 2016.

The proposals follow a Times report on concrete buildings that were built before 1976. By the most conservative estimate, as many as 50 of the more than 1,000 old concrete buildings in the city would collapse in a major earthquake, exposing thousands to injury or death.

Concrete buildings may look strong, but many older concrete buildings are vulnerable to the sideways movement of a major earthquake because they don't have enough steel reinforcement to hold columns in place. Experts say sorting out which structures present the greatest danger of injury and death to occupants is a daunting problem that would require building-by-building assessments by engineers.

Wooden soft-story structures often are built over carports and held up with slender columns, leaving the upper floors at risk of crashing into ground-floor apartments during shaking. The 1994 Northridge earthquake damaged or destroyed about 200 of these structures, and 16 people died in the Northridge Meadows apartment complex.

LaBonge and Englander have also proposed a monthly earthquake drill and an update on the city's earthquake preparedness efforts.

In a separate proposal last month, City Councilman Bernard C. Parks asked that the city create a reliable list of older concrete buildings that need retrofitting and recommend fixes.

The motions will be discussed by a City Council planning committee, and the resolution will be considered by the Rules, Elections and Intergovernmental Relations Committee. LaBonge said he expects reports back later this month.

earthquake@latimes.com

Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.

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