An Earthquake Could Topple Hundreds of Buildings, and L.A. Leaders Are Doing Nothing

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Thu, Mar 6, 2014 at 6:15 AM
  • Map by David A. Deis

In ex-City Councilman Hal Bernson's day, Los Angeles was a leader in preparing for the Big One, the 7 magnitude or greater earthquake that geologists say is inevitable and overdue - and will be unleashed upon Los Angeles by the San Andreas, Hollywood, Puente Hills, Santa Monica or Newport-Inglewood fault.

Between 1981 and 1992, Bernson saw to it, against great opposition, that almost all of the city's 8,080 brick buildings constructed before 1933 were strengthened so that millions of bricks wouldn't turn into lethal projectiles when the big temblor finally comes. He fought apartment landlords, the Central City Association and other political forces, convincing the City Council to mandate the retrofits.

"We overruled the opposition - we managed to get 10 votes on the City Council. It wasn't easy," Bernson recalls. But 11 years after Bernson's 2003 departure from City Hall, L.A.'s building and safety program to prevent widespread death and injury from a major quake is in tatters. 

click to enlarge Capitol Towers may have insufficient rebar and be at risk of collapse in a quake. Foreground: "Trenching" efforts by another landowner, in search of the active Hollywood Fault. - GRACIE ZHENG
  • Gracie Zheng
  • Capitol Towers may have insufficient rebar and be at risk of collapse in a quake. Foreground: "Trenching" efforts by another landowner, in search of the active Hollywood Fault.

The city lags behind San Francisco by at least a decade in tackling two looming dangers: thousands of "soft-story" buildings, which sit atop poorly supported carports and garages - in L.A., mostly condos and apartments, including the famed "dingbats" - and 1,454 "nonductile" concrete buildings built before 1980, which lack sufficient steel rebar to meet quake standards.

Berkeley and UCLA researchers believe that, during a big quake, perhaps 75 of the city's 1,454 concrete buildings could collapse and far more could suffer major damage such as cracking and buckling, killing and injuring thousands of people. At the same time, other scientists say thousands of soft-story buildings, including dingbat apartments housing thousands of residents, could collapse or suffer life-threatening damage.

Now retired and living in the San Fernando Valley, Bernson says, "We already know what needs to be done. All that is required now is to make it mandatory. I hope we don't have to wait until another disaster before the city acts and the state acts. Unfortunately, that's usually how things work."

The contrast between San Francisco and L.A. could not be greater. Beginning Sept. 15, San Francisco will mandate retrofitting of its pre-1978 soft-story, wood-frame buildings, which include large numbers of old Victorians with parking on the ground floor and apartments above. It's likely to cost $60,000 to $130,000 per structure to renovate the 2,800 to 3,000 buildings - with the cost to be paid by renters through long-term rent increases of about $8 to $50 per month, with low-income tenants being exempted.

Under its 30-year Earthquake Safety Implementation Program, the result of a 10-year study completed in 2008 into all aspects of quake threats, San Francisco now mandates that, by 2020, owners also must begin shoring up that city's fragile, nonductile concrete buildings.

(Among other things, San Francisco's far-reaching study showed that 85 percent of its vulnerable soft-story buildings, where 65,000 people live and work, could be rendered unlivable by a magnitude-7.2 quake, which could kill or injure thousands.)

Many Bay Area residents credit Laurence Kornfield, San Francisco's former chief building inspector, who fought for the plan alongside then-mayor Gavin Newsom amidst intense infighting, and then persuaded current Mayor Edwin M. Lee to embrace its recommendations. Paul McEntee, a structural engineer involved in the effort, says Kornfield "spearheaded this - he was a champion of it."

"To see San Francisco moving forward, that's impressive - and we need to get back in that line," former Los Angeles City Councilman Greig Smith says.

L.A. has no active plan to address its thousands of older, potentially killer buildings.

One major reason for this is that L.A.'s equivalent to San Francisco's Kornfield was Andrew Adelman, general manager of L.A.'s Department of Building & Safety from 1997 to 2009. According to key players from that period, Adelman vociferously opposed earthquake retrofitting of L.A.'s substandard concrete buildings, and often used his position on the California Seismic Safety Commission and influential task forces to argue for focusing on creating better new buildings rather than strengthening fragile existing ones.

A key building official, Karl Deppe, "was ready to go" with Bernson's mid-1990s plan for retrofitting older concrete buildings after the Northridge quake, but "nobody in the buildings wanted to spend money - they don't care," Bernson recalls.

With then-mayor Richard Riordan and Adelman opposed to mandated retrofitting, L.A. adopted a voluntary program under which property owners are required to strengthen their buildings only if they significantly upgrade or change the building's use.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has called older, poorly reinforced concrete buildings the top threat to human safety in a quake. But former councilman Smith, who in 2003 took over Bernson's seat, couldn't even get a three-person City Council committee to agree to his plan to merely count the nonductile buildings.

Smith tells L.A. Weekly: "We talked to [Andrew] Adelman about how crucial it was to go after the vulnerable, nonductile buildings, and what did Andrew Adelman say? He said to us, repeatedly, 'This is not a problem. This is not a problem.' We could not figure him out. ... ... He even killed us on trying to get gas shutoff valves approved by the state."

Smith and others tried, around 2007, under Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, to create a plan to review the dangers presented by nonductile concrete buildings but ran into walls put up by Adelman, the Building Owners and Managers Association and other business groups.

"We had the Concrete Masonry Association from Sacramento, a legitimate group of industry experts, backing us," Smith says. Even seven years ago, that association had already "tentatively identified 1,500 to 2,000 old concrete buildings" at risk of collapse in a serious quake, he says.

In 2009, Adelman was forced to resign by Villaraigosa amidst a lurid scandal after a city consultant alleged that she had blacked out during a lighthearted downtown "bar crawl" with city employees, including Adelman - and awoke hours later in his bedroom, where he was vaginally and anally raping her with multiple dildos while porn played on a big-screen TV. After the story surfaced in the media, she refused to go public and the district attorney announced he lacked sufficient evidence to prosecute.

Smith, recalling that scandal, says, "In so many ways, Andrew Adelman was bad news - and he had a profound effect on where we are in unpreparedness for earthquakes today. ... One of the things we teach in public policy is, pounce when you get an opening. But instead, when we tried to pounce, the window closed." (Adelman could not be reached for comment.)

In 2008, as the recession hit, San Francisco was wrapping up its extensive, 10-year study into its vulnerabilities from a Big One. But in Los Angeles, "Everything was shelved," Smith says. "We just couldn't do it. We got lots of push-back from the building owner associations. But that time is coming back around - there's an opportunity here."

One of Garcetti's first orders of business, Smith says, should be to reform the Department of Building & Safety.

Up next, who blew the whistle?

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