By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Contacted recently and asked his current position, now-County Supervisor Yaroslavsky said he remains reluctant to impose expensive safety measures on condo and apartment residents. He took the same position on a similar measure that would have required retrofitting apartment buildings with sprinkler systems. Such safety improvements can force rent hikes that can push a tenant onto the street, he said. ”It‘s a terrible decision to have to make,“ Yaroslavsky said. ”You have to mitigate safety problems without inflicting irreparable financial damage.“
As for the city’s decision to exclude Century City and a Bunker Hill from the mandatory inspection area, Holguin says it was determined by the steel-frame task force -- based on areas where damage had been reported, and by ground-motion data provided by the state. However, of the more than a dozen professionals who sat on the steel-frame task force who I contacted for this story, none can recall any discussion over drawing the boundaries of the inspection zone. All they can do is speculate: As Jay Allen, a structural engineer who served on the task force, puts it, ”It‘s a major political question. You’re going to have a lot of people fighting who live within the city, because the cost [of retrofitting] is incredible. We know that there will be damage from a Northridge-type event within a few miles of downtown L.A. You can expect a very high level of damage on the pre-Northridge connections, which we know exist throughout downtown L.A.“
If the task force didn‘t exclude the high-rise districts, who did? When pressed a second time, Holguin admits hesitantly, ”After some of the discussions we had with council staff on similar ordinances in the past, it was obvious that there was no way we were going to get support [for certain areas]. Especially for downtown buildings.“
So the decision was political? Holguin insists that the Northridge ground-motion data did not suggest that either area had been hit very hard. But Tony Shakal of the state Department of Conservation, who provided Holguin with Northridge ground-motion data, says he supplied information only on specific areas requested by the city. ”They would work on that [information] with their committees, and then they would come back with new requests,“ he says during a phone interview from his office in Sacramento. Expanding this point is David Bonowitz, an engineer in Northern California who was one of two men who compiled a list of steel-frame buildings damaged by Northridge. ”Why did we not find damage downtown? Because nobody looked for damage downtown,“ he says flatly. ”Nobody did a commensurate search in the buildings downtown. So of course no damage was found there.“
Meanwhile, a mandatory county inspec-tion ordinance, passed in January 1996, a year after the city’s, has yet to take effect at all. In the months following Northridge, the prominent L.A. engineering firm of Brandow and Johnston repaired major steel-frame damage in two buildings on the Universal Studios lot -- the largest complex of steel buildings under county jurisdiction. One of those buildings was actually the place where weld fractures were first discovered in L.A. But the firm was never commissioned to inspect or repair any of the other steel-frame buildings on the lot. Now, five years later, Universal has a contract with a new engineering firm, but most of the steel-frame structures on the Universal lot, including Universal City Walk, still have not been inspected.
As it turns out, according to Chapter 94 of the Los Angeles County Building Code, the county Department of Building and Safety should have served the entire Universal lot compliance notices for steel-frame inspection and repair in January 1996. Three and a half years later, the county has yet to send a single one.
If you climb the ridges behind the Griffith Observatory and look across the L.A. basin toward the sea, the issue stands out clearly. To your left, you see the spiking downtown skyline, skyscrapers clustered shoulder to shoulder; look to your right, and the high-rises of Century City jut into view. These are the steel-frame hubs in L.A., and these are the districts that were exempted from the city‘s inspection ordinance.
There is no scientific reason for deciding not to inspect all of L.A.’s steel-frame buildings. There are only political fears. Bernson, who was a staunch supporter of Holguin‘s ordinance after Northridge, dodged several interview attempts for this article, because, according to his press secretary, he did not want to be perceived as instigating the steel-frame issue. He finally made time for a few brief comments during a council meeting, where he said Holguin was solely responsible for the ordinance and its boundaries. He could not even recall the recommendation in the ordinance that residential buildings be examined 180 days after the initial group.
It’s not hard to imagine why the steel-frame issue has lost all of its support. Earthquake safety is an intangible entity, which doesn‘t go far in a political arena of fixed costs. After the Sylmar quake in 1971, the L.A. Times reported that a large portion of welded steel-frame connections in the ARCO Tower -- at that time under construction downtown as the largest building in L.A. -- had cracked ”as a result of the quake.“ The welds were all fixed without further discussion. But in this context, consider a Bernson rumination about cracked steel buildings at one of the 1994 Earthquake Committee meetings. ”Let’s say we go to the ARCO Towers and we find that there‘s joint damage there. What are we going to do? Evacuate the building? Put all those people out of business? This is like Pandora’s box. You pull the top off, and you don‘t know what’s going to come out.“