Capturing the Rhythm of
Downtown Santa Monica
Santa Monica Centric
City works to clear brick buildings from earthquake danger list
By Kevin Herrera

Nearly all brick buildings in Downtown Santa Monica have been cleared from a list of properties that could be vulnerable to collapse or suffer significant damage in a major earthquake, according to records provided by City officials. 


The deadline to complete seismic retrofit work for unreinforced masonry buildings is at the end of August and of the 92 structures identified by the City of Santa Monica as being potentially vulnerable, only four in downtown are in a state of limbo. The others have either completed work in the past and provided proof, are currently under construction or have submitted plans and are awaiting approval. Others have submitted appeals to be reclassified as another type of structure. If approved those property owners would have more time to complete seismic upgrades.


In March 2017 the City Council approved the most extensive seismic retrofit program in the nation by requiring not only wood apartments and concrete buildings to be retrofitted, but also steel-frame structures. The City's move followed a report by the LA Times that said Santa Monica quietly stopped enforcing earthquake safety regulations. Santa Monica passed laws in the 1990s requiring retrofits, but enforcement faded in the early 2000s. 

 

(A map of buildings in Santa Monica damaged during the 1994 Northridge quake.)

 

 

(St. Monica Catholic Church following the Northridge Quake.)


By 2013, the City could not find its old list of possibly vulnerable buildings. That has led to some confusion as property owners say they've already completed seismic enhancements years ago, but have no documentation to prove it. 


Santa Monica is at a particular risk of earthquakes. The Santa Monica fault runs through the northern half of the city. Santa Monica was also hard-hit by the Northridge quake, which badly damaged several landmark buildings, including the St. Monica Catholic Church, and caused the loss of 1,500 apartments, or about 5 percent of the city's total stock. 


"If a building is on the list it doesn't necessarily mean you absolutely have to do the work. It means we think you may, " said Kevin Purcell, a senior administrative analyst in the City's Building and Safety Division who is overseeing the seismic retrofit program. 


Purcell has been urging property owners to submit an evaluation report by an engineer to show that improvements have been completed. If not, the City can issue financial penalties. So far code enforcement officers have opened more than 20 cases and have taken action on seven as of July. 


Owners of other types of buildings like steel frame, soft-story or concrete tilt-up, have more time to submit evaluation reports and complete construction, some as many as 20 years from the time the program was adopted by the Council. However, City officials and engineers in the private sector are urging them to act now to avoid catastrophic losses in case a quake like the two that hit California in July strikes the Los Angeles region. 


Property owners can be held liable if someone dies while working or living in their building during a quake, even if under the law they have years to complete their seismic upgrades. 


"While different building types are on different timelines for the retrofit program, the City of Santa Monica encourages property owners of potentially vulnerable buildings of all types to begin the work as soon as is feasible to protect their asset and for the overall safety of the community," said Constance Farrell, the City's public information officer. "Santa Monica's retrofit program is one of the most comprehensive because the public's safety is paramount as is our ability to recover quickly."


During a meeting with business leaders and emergency management experts in early August to discuss how to recover from an earthquake, it was said that 40 percent of small businesses never reopen after a natural disaster. Of those that do, 25 percent fail within a year of reopening. 


Retrofitting a structure can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $220,000 or more depending on the structure. 


"It's one of those rare occasions where you are doing good business by protecting your investment, while at the same time you are doing a good deed by protecting your tenants and the community," said Ali Sahabi, chief operating officer for Optimum Seismic, which has worked on several buildings in Santa Monica since the 1980s. 

 

(A seismic retrofit in progress on a soft-story building in Santa Monica)


Next up on the seismic retrofit list are concrete tilt-up buildings. By far the building type with the most structures identified as potentially vulnerable is soft-story. These are mainly apartment buildings made of wood with flimsy ground floors, usually held up above carports by skinny columns that can snap during shaking. Owners of those buildings have until September of 2023 to complete their upgrades. 


"We started with over 1,700 soft-story apartments and condos," Purcell said. "We have been pretty lucky. Most [property owners] have been proactive. We're doing well." 


For more information about the seismic retrofit program, please visit  www.smgov.net/seismic

"Santa Monica's retrofit program is one of the most comprehensive because the public's safety is paramount as is our ability to recover quickly." — Constance Farrell, City of Santa Monica public information officer.

Kevin Herrera is a former journalist turned marketing and communication expert, beer enthusiast, cyclist, cultural observer/commentator and expert on all things Downtown Santa Monica. He is currently the sr. marketing & communication manager for Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. 

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