Is Mayor Eric Garcetti's Earthquake Retrofit Plan Too Late to Save L.A.?

Click to enlarge map.
Click to enlarge map.
Map by David A. Deis

In a grim bid to catch up with San Francisco by retrofitting at-risk buildings to save lives during a Big One earthquake, Mayor Eric Garcetti has announced L.A.'s biggest public works project ever. Garcetti laid out a plan Monday to seek billions from state taxpayers to shore up buildings and emergency communications and to construct a new, redundant water pipe system. 

As L.A. Weekly has reported, the City Council and Department of Building & Safety for years fought even a modest plan to ID the locations of at least 1,600 at-risk buildings, saying disclosures would hurt property values. San Francisco is already tagging its older structures — in order to charge landlords and renters for retrofits. 

Many thousands could die in L.A. from massive fires and collapsed structures if one of four local faults ruptures. The hollywood, Puente Hills, Santa Monica and Newport-Inglewood faults all are capable of a 7-magnitude quake. And then there's the San Andreas Fault, far inland — but whose geologic quirks could aim its destruction at the heart of L.A. and the Westside.

See Also: The Big One Will Hit L.A. Harder Than We Thought

Powerful simulated quake waves run from Palm Springs to the heart of L.A.
Powerful simulated quake waves run from Palm Springs to the heart of L.A.
Stanford University

Garcetti's aggressive vision was authored by a group led by Dr. Lucy Jones, the famed U.S. Geological Survey seismologist whom Garcetti appointed in January as his earthquake czar. Jones said yesterday, “We put 10 million people on 100 [earthquake] faults.”

See Also: The First 15 Minutes After the Big One: Who dies in Los Angeles, and why, when the earth quakes on the San Andreas Fault

Experts in San Francisco have been watching to see when L.A. would take action. 

William Strawn, spokesman for the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection, said he expects Los Angeles to experience the same issues it has been dealing with since it spent 10 years hammering out a detailed plan and then approving a retrofitting law in 2013.

L.A. could be years from that.

“Like Los Angeles," Strawn said, "we have a lot of soft buildings that will pancake in a large earthquake. I’m talking about open-air garages at street level with three, four or five stories above. They were very popular here in the 1940s.”

Strawn said that if no retrofit is done, the chance of collapse is one in four. If modest retrofitting is done, that number plunges to one in 40, he said.

The S.F. Department of Building Inspection worked with the mayor and community groups, spending countless hours poring over building documents to identify the 6,664 buildings in the “soft first story” category. Next they came up with a screening form to be used by licensed architects or engineers to learn if a building had been retrofitted.

Their survey showed that of 6,664 buildings, 75 percent of owners had done nothing, 19 percent had completed some seismic strengthening and 6 percent were under review or nonresponsive.

As the Weekly has reported, in dramatic contrast to San Francisco, L.A.'s Department of Building & Safety strenuously opposed, for years, efforts by City Councilman Hal Bernson to persuade the rest of the City Council to begin quantifying, identifying and notifying owners of at-risk buildings.

See Also: An Earthquake Could Topple Hundreds of Buildings and L.A. Leaders Are Doing Nothing.

Garcetti wants to not only strengthen thousands of buildings but also build a separate water system that would ingeniously use captured rainwater and Pacific Ocean salt water to fight fires when a Big One hits.

City Councilman Tom LaBonge stood behind Garcetti in a packed press conference outside the mayor’s office and said the costs will be massive.

He expects the City Council to lobby the state Legislature to float a bond in which all Californians would help pay for L.A.'s retrofitting. LaBonge said that's fair because "an earthquake doesn’t know borders.” 

After his presentation, the mayor admitted that the City Council — including during the years in which he served as Hollywood-area councilman — long ignored the threat from thousands of weakly designed buildings.

“For a long time, Los Angeles has been at the epicenter of seismic risk,” Garcetti said. “Today we’re going to be at the epicenter of seismic preparedness. Let’s do this before the next one hits, instead of being complacent. ... Here in earthquake country, those responsibilities have been shirked for far too long. The time for retrofit is now.”

As the Weekly reported in March:

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. ...

But until now, L.A. has not fixed the two other threats: the at-risk older concrete and soft-story buildings. This, the paper reports, was largely due to:

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.


Garcetti and the new report say that 1,600 buildings are in danger of collapsing. Many thousands more could suffer severe and life-threatening damage.

Besides deaths from collapses and partial collapses, what scares Garcetti most is great fires that could burn down large swaths of the city, made much worse if L.A.'s antique water pipes rupture and leave firefighters dry.

Under his plan, state taxpayers would foot the bill for L.A.'s new water and communications systems or upgrades, and apartment owners would pay to make their buildings safe.

In San Francisco, landlords now are allowed to pass the costs on to tenants using modest monthly rent hikes, agreed to after numerous groups spent years hammering out that city's plan.

“It’s going to take commitment on the part of the city to notify and re-notify owners of suspect buildings,” Strawn said.

But Los Angeles is not regarded as a "good government" city, thanks to a City Council heavily populated with former state legislators who avoid public debate and have been successfully sued for violating citizens' due process rights and for ignoring transparency and environmental laws — and who vote unanimously about 99 percent of the time.

It's not clear if they can pull this off. Merely identifying buildings and notifying owners is likely to require years.

Under Garcetti's plan, tenants would foot the bill — apartment owners will be allowed to tack a monthly fee on the rent. “The private sector’s responsible” for upgrading their buildings, Garcetti said. “It’s about $5,000 per unit or about $10 to $15 a square foot” for many of the buildings.

His report — dubbed “Resilience by Design” — targets two types of buildings that need to be made safe:  “soft-story” buildings and “concrete” buildings built before 1980.

A soft-story is a wood-frame building with large openings on the first floor, such as open-air parking ("dingbat" apartments common on the Westside, South L.A. and the San Fernando Valley, for example) or large display windows.

In the at-risk concrete buildings, the problem is the columns and frame connectors. In older buildings, these elements are brittle and prone to breaking in a quake.

Strawn, in San Francisco, said it won't be easy or quick. “It’s going to take aggressive outreach so that owners understand this is a high priority."

Once the L.A. City Council passes the implementing legislation to let the plan move forward, “soft-story” building owners would have five years to make fixes. But weak concrete buildings, whose troubles are hidden inside and are thus much costlier and tougher to identify, should have up to 25 years to be retrofitted, the Resilience by Design report recommends.

Retrofitting already is taking place in LA. But most of it is undertaken by hospitals forced to modernize due to a state law enacted after the Northridge quake in 1994.

LaBonge said it could be “18 months before any serious retrofitting takes place. A lot of these places are mom-and-pops and we don’t want to run anyone out of business.”


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