By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The charged nature of the politics surrounding the inspection ordinance was aired publicly at a July 1994 meeting of the council’s Earthquake Recovery Committee. Councilman Yaroslavsky took the lead, lambasting city staff and even challenging their motives. ”I want to know exactly how you‘re finding this stuff out,“ he said of Holguin’s damage reports. ”I want to know exactly where you‘ve looked. I want to know how widespread your samples have been, if they’re widespread at all. I want you to be able to answer those kinds of questions here in public at this committee.“
A few moments later, Yaroslavsky continued, ”When you first hear about the steel-frame problem, it‘s kind of ominous. And maybe it is. But what is the worst-case scenario?“
”You could have partial collapses,“ Holguin replied sheepishly.
”Pancaking of a building?“ Yaroslavsky asked with a hint of interest.
”Yes,“ Holguin confirmed.
Yaroslavsky pondered this information for a beat, then fell back into his rant. ”I’m not prepared to approve any ordinance that begins to incur the kinds of costs that this ordinance would apparently impose upon some people, without knowing that there is an overriding public-safety interest . . . To me, I smell a rat. I smell a lot of inspectors, Mr. Holguin, seeing a long-term economic benefit. Retire from the city, go out into the private inspection business, collect a pension and do inspections . . . It‘s great!“
Yaroslavsky had a receptive audience. The gallery at the hearing room was packed with condo owners from the Wilshire Corridor -- located in the councilman’s district. At the end of the meeting, one resident from Yaroslavsky‘s district congratulated him for ”taking this slowly.“ The same resident, a member of the Crown Towers Home Owners Association, was apparently summing up the thoughts of building owners everywhere when he said, ”I think the idea of trying to protect everyone against everything all the time is noble but impossible.“
His words certainly rang true for the owners of the Barrington Plaza, a huge residential apartment complex on the Westside with over 8,000 steel joints inside, who hired George Mihlsten, the influential city-affairs lobbyist for the law firm Latham & Watkins. Mihlsten attended many of the Earthquake Committee meetings, arguing that inspecting a building with a large number of steel connections would be outrageously expensive. ”Almost as expensive as hiring attorneys,“ Bernson quipped back. (Mihlsten declined to return several calls requesting comment for this story.)
Yaroslavsky didn’t bother showing up to the next committee meeting on steel-frame buildings. This time, Holguin confirmed that 90 percent of the steel-frame buildings inspected by his department had sustained severe structural failure in the welded joints. Personnel from top engineering firms in the city made presentations as well, assuring the council that this was a real issue, prompting Councilman Bernson to declare that he was ”extremely alarmed“ by the situation. ”That scares the hell out of me,“ Bernson said in response to figures and pictures that described the city‘s steel-frame damage.
By July, however, Holguin’s ordinance had lost all its political steam. In retreat, still convinced that something should be done, Bernson concluded a July 19, 1994, session by preaching to a choir that didn‘t seem to exist: ”For those of you who are out there, don’t feel that this is the last chapter. Because we‘re not going to give this up.“
The ordinance sat dead for another seven months.
It was the quake in Kobe, Japan -- where several large steel-frame buildings actually collapsed -- that sparked a renewed interest in a steel-frame inspection ordinance. On February 22, 1995, one month after Kobe and more than a year after Northridge, the council approved a version of Holguin’s proposal, written in a language indicative of the situation. It reads that Los Angeles ”is considered by experts to be the most seismically active zone in the country.“ That ”experts expect a massive earthquake on one of the faults under the city within the next 30 years.“ And that ”damage to these welded steel . . . frame buildings could expose occupants of these buildings to a potential life-safety risk in future earthquakes.“
Finally, the action Holguin had been searching for. However, the reality of the ordinance contradicted the council‘s urgent language. Not only did the boundaries of the ordinance -- ”high earthquake damage areas“ -- edge out by a matter of a few blocks the two largest high-rise districts in Los Angeles, the statute’s language also greased the squeaky wheels of Yaroslavsky‘s Wilshire Corridor. Before the ordinance passed, the council elected to exclude residential high-rises altogether.
In a transparent attempt to seem responsible, the council added a clause saying, ”Within 180 days after the adoption of this ordinance, the Department shall report back to the Council with recommendations for the inspection of residential welded steel-frame buildings.“ But according to Holguin, the council had no interest in following through. ”We contacted the appropriate council offices. I’ll leave it at that . . . There was just no response.“ Even though the Wilshire Corridor experienced some of the most severe ground motion in the city during Northridge, the condos there have been virtually forgotten.