For 42 years, the Alquist-Priolo Act has banned new buildings on top of or right next to a particularly treacherous earthquake phenomenon known as a surface rupture fault. When these faults erupt, they don't just wreak havoc from an epicenter miles below — they rip open the ground itself. Any building foundation sitting atop such a fault rips apart, toppling or otherwise destroying the building.
Scientists widely agree that the Alquist-Priolo building ban will save thousands of lives when the big one inevitably hits. The state geologist appointed by the governor has the final word on pinpointing these faults, and once Gov. Jerry Brown's top geologist, John Parrish, maps a fault line, cities including Oakland, Signal Hill, West Hollywood and San Francisco ban all new buildings there.
But Brown's seismic scientists are about to run into the buzzsaw that is Los Angeles developers, the wealthiest and most powerful lobby inside L.A. City Hall.
L.A. Weekly has learned that the private geology firm working for Millennium Partners, the company that wants to erect 35-story and 39-story skyscrapers next to Capitol Records in Hollywood, soon will release its own data challenging state geologist Parrish's map. The state map places Hollywood's active surface rupture fault directly beneath the site of the proposed towers.
A source whom the Weekly agreed not to identify says Group Delta Consultants Inc. will try to show that the fault, capable of delivering a devastating 7-magnitude quake, is just far enough away from Millennium's two planned skyscrapers to make them legal to build.
If Christopher M. Jeffries and Philip E. Aarons, the multimillionaire New York owners of Millennium Partners, do take on John Parrish, it will mark a rare and possibly unprecedented land battle.
In the history of the Alquist-Priolo Act, state officials tell the Weekly, no entity has ever sued to overturn the state's official earthquake fault maps. And according to Mark Benthien, director for communication, education and outreach at the Southern California Earthquake Center, even challenging the state geologist's maps administratively is uncommon.
“The state's assessment of faults is based on research and science that's not going to get a lot of questioning,” Benthien says. “The maps the state has done [are] the low-hanging fruit that we absolutely know. The Hollywood fault is low-hanging fruit because it's one of the known Los Angeles Basin faults. This puts the onus on the developer to show they are not building on a fault.”
Jeffries and Aarons' geology experts, Group Delta, have refused to give the state geologists full access to results of their belated soil testing, which Jeffries and Aarons launched after being stung by media coverage about their failure to conduct a comprehensive geological study of the fault.
When Group Delta erected a plastic-wrapped fence that prevented anyone from watching their soil trenching and testing, local community groups flew a drone over the Millennium site, capturing limited images of the digging under way before they were shouted away by security. (See VIDEO below.)
Benthien says that if there's a disagreement over the location of a fault, it's because developers don't want a fault on their property; the state geologist is interested only in mapping the location.
“In many Alquist-Priolo zones,” he notes, “developers will build a housing tract and put a park or roads on top of the fault, but not homes.”
But the land in Hollywood is different. It could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in profit, thanks to policies adopted by Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council. They are working to throw out longtime height limits of three to five stories in much of Hollywood to remake the area with skyscrapers and heavy density.
City Hall's vision is controversial in L.A. and beyond, but it's most vehemently opposed by a coalition of Hollywood and East Hollywood neighborhood groups. The community groups have temporarily halted Garcetti's official “Community Plan” in court, and City Councilman Mitch O'Farrell has lashed out at the local organizations as “looking to prevent progress.”
A veteran soil engineer, employed by a top geological firm that is not involved in the tussle, says there's no doubt a fault lies beneath the Millennium Towers property.
This soils engineer says: “The state geologist does receive additional information every now and then, and they might redraw [the official state map], but that could take years. The maps are based on the information the state geologists have in hand. And the state hasn't received anything from Millennium.”
One consultant to the U.S. Geological Survey says that if a developer thinks a map is incorrect, it must “provide research showing where the fault is located.”
“The process of responding to the fault maps is an ongoing process,” the USGS consultant says. “Local jurisdictions such as cities only want the maps to make sure builders and developers conform to state law, so that buildings aren't built over a fault.”
If Jerry Brown might raise an eyebrow over the challenge being readied by Millennium Partners against Parrish and his team, the developer appears to have the ear of local politicos O'Farrell and Garcetti. Last fall, Garcetti commented to KNBC4 that Group Delta geologists had evidence that Millennium's skyscrapers would not sit directly atop the fault.
“I think the developer there has hired seismologists who have trenched and looked at it and found a fault going straight through,” Garcetti said. But, he added, the private testing also showed that the Hollywood fault does “not go directly underneath where [Millennium Towers] is proposed.”
State geologist Parrish and Tim McCrink, senior engineering geologist at the California Geological Survey, say the contrary.
Their team concluded that the active surface rupture fault runs directly under both the western and eastern skyscraper sites planned near the Capitol Records tower.
McCrink tells the Weekly he believes Group Delta hid data unfavorable to its client's project. He accuses the Torrance-based geotechnical engineering, materials testing and inspection firm of holding back data from its deep trenching, borings and other studies.
“It's complicated. Nobody's broken any rules,” McCrink says, “but we know they're sitting on stuff. It seems in this case that everything is amplified because of the size of the project. There's a lot of money behind this, so it seems more intense.
“I guess they're covering their 'assets.'?”
Sources tell the Weekly that Millennium could file its soil-testing findings with the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety as early as Feb. 4.
After that, it would “take a while” for Building and Safety to process the new information, which usually involves asking the developer for more facts, department spokesman Luke Zamperini says. “I'm sure it will be picked over with a fine-toothed comb,” he says.
Don Drysdale, a spokesman for the California Geological Survey, tells the Weekly that since the Alquist-Priolo Act went into effect in 1973, state-drawn earthquake zones have never been challenged in court. Moreover, veteran geological consultants tell the Weekly that it's rare for a developer to fight the state's quake maps in the court of opinion.
The developer isn't talking. Brian Lewis of Marathon Communications, which represents Millennium Partners, says, “I regret to inform you that we are not going to make a comment.” Group Delta CEO Michael Reader also refuses to comment.
However, McCrink says of the data Millennium Partners has shared so far: “In some cases they gave us pieces and in some they did not. We think there is something significant going on in this area. They're either going to have to find the fault line or prove it's not there.”
The profit potential is clear for Millennium owners Jeffries and Aarons: An owner recently listed a residential penthouse at their soaring New York City skyscraper, which is also dubbed Millennium Tower, for a headline-generating $34.5 million.
Here in L.A., their consultant Group Delta is an unusually aggressive firm in the buttoned-down world of geological consulting. Group Delta has created an official-looking website, hollywood-fault.com, designed to look like a news or government info page. The website often holds the top Google position in searches for information on the Hollywood fault.
“I imagine there's a bit of a pissing war going on between Group Delta and state geologists,” says structural engineer Michael Cochran, of Weidlinger Associates in Marina del Rey. “Sounds like a lot of accusations. That's not normal.”
Cochran, past president of the Structural Engineers Association of California, says that almost without exception, developers and cities heed the California Geological Survey's warnings about active fault locations.
Jonathan Stewart, professor and chairman of UCLA's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, knows the players on both sides. “We (engineers) usually operate on a much more professional level than resorting to name-calling,” Stewart says. “I'm quite surprised it's gotten to this level.”
If Millennium Partners does release its findings this month, McCrink says, the developer doesn't have to release all of it — not until they formally apply for a building permit for the two skyscrapers, which they have yet to do.
“This is a dog-and-pony show,” McCrink says. “It's a little irksome.”
At this point, McCrink says, Los Angeles city elected officials “see development that's good for Hollywood. It just gets messy, that's all.”