By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
The structural deficiencies of steel-frame buildings first came to light in the weeks and months following the Northridge quake. No buildings collapsed, but severely fractured welds were discovered in the exposed girders of buildings under construction at the time, such as the Getty Center and a parking garage in Universal City. In the quake’s aftermath, several industry tests emphasized the fact that the weld metal used to join the heavy I-beam steel girders in these structures was far too brittle to withstand seismic movement. This same weld metal, with the same joint design, was used in almost every steel-frame edifice throughout the quake-prone West for the past 30 years.
By May of 1994, confirmation of the bad news had begun flowing into L.A.‘s Department of Building and Safety. Weld fractures had been identified in 77 steel-frame buildings throughout the Southland. The tally would soon rise to more than 100 buildings. By the end of the year, a total of 32 steel-frame towers in L.A. would be ”yellow-tagged“ -- a ”possible major aftershock hazard“ -- and 10 more would be ”red-tagged“ -- in ”imminent danger of collapse from an aftershock.“ This damage was inflicted by an earthquake considered moderate by all counts, with most of its force actually traveling north into the lightly populated San Gabriel Mountains.
The task of managing this dilemma -- an entire city stuck together with defective glue -- fell into the lap of Richard Holguin, chief of L.A.’s Department of Building and Safety and chairman of the city‘s steel-frame task force. Holguin spent the better part of 1994 trying to convince policymakers that something should be done about this problem. The majority of his pleas fell on deaf ears.
Now, with retirement less than a year away, Holguin seems unable to even convince himself that this is a a real issue. During an interview at his panoramic 10th-floor office in Building and Safety’s downtown headquarters, he recalls in a monotone voice the days after Northridge, now more than half a decade past. ”Buildings have what we call nonconforming rights, to remain forever the way they were originally built. Unless the city or state or some agency passes what we call a retroactive ordinance, all we can require is that the owner go back and repair the building. They could really just re-weld the connections with the same weld material. That‘s perfectly legal. That’s all that‘s required.“
Holguin himself, however, was able to change that. In December 1994, with the backing of the City Council, he banned the old, brittle weld metal from future use in Los Angeles construction. This was only the beginning of what Holguin hoped to achieve. In a clear indication of his early vigor, Holguin took an initial list of 1,200 vulnerable steel-frame buildings to Councilman Hal Bernson -- chairman of the city’s Ad Hoc Committee on Earthquake Recovery -- and asked for them to be included in a mandatory inspection and repair ordinance. Recalling the controversy that soon swarmed his proposal, Holguin says, ”The problem we ran into is that it‘s very difficult for a city or a legislative body to require work on a building if you just suspect damage.“
Bernson initially embraced Holguin’s approach and scheduled hearings before his committee. But as the cost implications became clear, an entire community of individual and corporate property owners rallied against it. Skepticism came in a variety of forms, from straightforward concerns expressed by then-Councilman Richard Alarcon, citing the lack of technologically efficient repair methods, to ludicrous claims by then-Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, accusing Holguin of masterminding a plot to make the engineering community rich. All of the complaints focused on one goal: keeping Holguin‘s ordinance stagnant.
The first brick wall Holguin’s ordinance ran into was erected by the real estate lobby. Influential groups such as the Central Cities Association -- a congregation of downtown building owners -- as well as the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), took the driver‘s seat in directing the council’s steel-frame policy. Real estate investment groups also chimed in, urging restraint. BOMA actually formed a steel-frame task group of its own and had a key member act as a liaison between its group and the city‘s. Its members continuously recommended suspending the ordinance. ”They were very vocal, because of the costs and everything,“ Holguin says.
Asked the association’s current position, BOMA president Jeff Eely says, ”Our organization was never opposed to the repair process; the only thing we were concerned about was making sure the repairs were going to generate results.“
Eely continues: ”The fundamental issue is that buildings are not designed never to be damaged; what they‘re designed to do is be able to safely evacuate people. And even with the damage that occurred in Northridge, that objective was met.“
With the degree of apprehension expressed toward Holguin’s proposal, it‘s no wonder that any idea of upgrading L.A.’s steel-frame buildings has now been completely abandoned. Before it ever reached a committee meeting, Holguin‘s list of 1,200 buildings to be examined for cracks had been whittled down to about 400, ignoring the high-rise areas of Century City and Bunker Hill. Even then, the ordinance was tossed like a hot potato between committee filing cabinets for nearly a year, all because the price of safety was too high.
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