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Thousands of lives at risk and L.A.'s quake retrofit law isn't helping

Many Los Angeles residents live and work in old concrete buildings that could crumble in the next earthquake. But lenient seismic rules mean they're not being retrofitted.

October 15, 2013|By Doug Smith, Rosanna Xia and Rong-Gong Lin II
  • In downtown Los Angeles, thousands of people live and work in concrete buildings, many of which have not been retrofitted.
In downtown Los Angeles, thousands of people live and work in concrete buildings,… (John W. Adkisson, Los Angeles…)

When investor Izek Shomof and his family bought the faded Hayward Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, it was home to hundreds of low-income residents, many living alone in single-room units.

He decided to keep the building as a residential hotel, so the city didn't require him to perform seismic retrofitting to make it better able to withstand a major earthquake.

The story was different for an office building the Shomofs bought down the block on Spring Street, which they converted into upscale lofts for artists and professionals. Because the land use changed, the city's seismic retrofit law kicked in, requiring them to strengthen that building.

The revitalization of downtown has seen scores of buildings like the Shomofs' Spring Tower Lofts — some vacant for decades — transformed into trendy residences, shops and restaurants and retrofitted.

It's a rare case in which Los Angeles has demanded that property owners make old concrete buildings stronger. About 100 buildings converted into residences have been retrofitted citywide, most of them in downtown. A Times analysis of city and county data found more than 1,000 buildings that could pose a risk of collapse. Unless the owners change the building's use, the structures are not required to be retrofitted.

The retrofit law has given a measure of security to thousands of new downtown residents.

But it has also left out thousands of others who still live and work in old concrete buildings: office workers, denizens of residential hotels, people on the line in sewing businesses.

Many downtown residents and workers aren't aware of this divide.

Eric Shomof, Izek's son and the spokesman for the family, keeps his office in the unprotected Hayward Hotel. He said he believes the building is safe because it's survived earthquakes undamaged.

He said it's unfortunate that some high-end tenants in the converted lofts enjoy a high level of protection while other residents and office workers do not. He said that the retrofitting he has done is a good start but that owners can't afford to fix all buildings in downtown.

"A lot of these owners, it's tough to have them change a lock when somebody moves out," Shomof said. "But I think you'll see a lot more vacant buildings down here.... Because it's a big cost. It's not cheap."

The disparity between safe and vulnerable buildings reflects the city's halfway approach to seismic preparedness.

After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, building officials proposed a sweeping program to inspect every old concrete building and require owners to retrofit those found vulnerable. But as opposition from owners mounted, the City Council backed away from mandating retrofits and instead adopted voluntary standards. Owners would be required to retrofit only if they changed the use of the building or did a major makeover.

The downtown revival of the late 1990s unexpectedly brought those standards into play. With dozens of nearly worthless buildings offering the potential to create high-value living spaces, investors found spending even $1 million for retrofitting an acceptable cost.

Structural engineers, who have sounded alarms about the hazards of concrete buildings, view the downtown renaissance as a small but important step forward in seismic safety.

More buildings have been made safe there than anywhere else in Los Angeles, they say. Equally important, the work has provided engineers with valuable knowledge about how to strengthen and preserve multistory buildings.

"The methods of analysis have considerably improved," said Nabih Youssef, the structural engineer who retrofitted City Hall. "It becomes easier to convince owners, investors, building officials that … a voluntary seismic retrofit is a valuable investment."

In some cases, a quirk of history now dictates who lives in a retrofitted building.

In his downtown home of 27 years, David Amico has everything that suits his artist's sensibility: spacious ceilings, good light, concrete columns and a community of other artists.

But Amico's building near 4th and San Pedro streets lacks internal bracing to protect its concrete frame from collapse in an earthquake, according to city building records.

In the late 1980s, artists took over some abandoned factories as squatters. Later the city adopted an artists-in-residence program that grandfathered in their conversion of the buildings. At the time, there were no seismic retrofit standards.

Across the street, a 1927 vintage shoe factory remained a derelict until 2009 when it was converted into a residence for homeless women as part of a historic building preservation. By then the city had an ordinance for seismic retrofits, and it applied any time a building changed use.

More often than not, however, the divide in seismic safety falls along an economic line paralleling downtown's dual population.

Actress Joy Osmanski sees it every day when she walks her poodle terrier Arlo past the sewing factory a block down her street.

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