At first early this week, it seemed as if things were finally settled. The Los Angeles Times reported that the city had determined, from geologists hired by developer Millennium Partners, that there is no active Hollywood earthquake fault underlying land where the developer and City Council want to build two skyscrapers on either side of the Capitol Records building. 

In addition, the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety agreed with the developer, saying that, while there is a fault running deep beneath the property, they're ignoring it because it’s too far down to matter.

It sounded very simple and final, if surprising. Then things got more complicated over the course of the next two days.

Pinpointing the location of an active earthquake fault is a matter of interpretation. The L.A. Department of Building and Safety agreed with geologists hired by the developer who wants to build two towers, 35 and 39 stories tall. These would be the first skyscrapers in low-built Hollywood — unless you count an older 20-story tower, which just barely qualifies for skyscraper status, at the corner of Sunset and Vine.

Millennium Partners' outside geologists have said there is no earthquake fault under the footprint of the developers' two proposed towers. They have told the city this, and city officials say they believe it.

This is in contrast to state geologists at the California Geological Survey (CGS), who last November identified an active Hollywood fault running below the Millennium property and under the corner of one of the proposed towers. In February, L.A. Weekly learned that Millennium Partners was hiring Group Delta Consultants Inc. to try to show that the fault, which the state said was capable of delivering a devastating 7-magnitude quake, was far enough away from the skyscrapers to make them legal to build.

Mark Benthien, communications director for the Southern California Earthquake Center, said the location of the fault is not about who’s right and who’s wrong. Different geologists interpret the data and come up with different conclusions. State geologists can say the fault is one place and the developer’s geologist can say it’s somewhere else.

“It’s not a cut-and-dried thing,” Benthien says.

The city's Department of Building and Safety has agreed with the developer that there is a fault deep beneath the property but are ignoring it because it’s too deep to matter. However, as Benthien points out, “The Northridge quake was 12 miles deep — and it mattered.”

The blind-thrust Northridge quake, measuring 6.7-magnitude and lasting 10 to 20 seconds, caused damage 85 miles away, hospitalized 1,600 people, killed 60 and caused damage (still being debated) estimated at $13 billion to $40 billion.

The Millennium developers told the city that the Hollywood fault is 150,000 years old or older and thus should not be relevant. The Times announced that the Department of Building and Safety's signoff on those and other geological findings “ends a controversial two-year debate over whether two massive skyscrapers could be built safely due to seismic conditions.”

But nothing about this debate seems to have ended.

Structural engineer Michael Cochran of Weidlinger Associates in Marina del Rey said the “old” interpretation is, frankly, open for discussion.

“If there is a fault and you tell me it’s 1 million years old or 2 million years old, that’s a drop in the bucket in geological time,” Cochran said. He says, of the state's definition of an active fault as one that has ruptured within the last 11,000 years, “11,000 years is not much.”

Decades ago, the Alquist-Priolo Act was passed by the California Legislature to save thousands of lives when a major quake hits any of the hundreds of California communities that sit atop faults. The law demands that new buildings be constructed 50 feet from an “active” fault and no buildings be built atop one.

The Alquist-Priolo Act also requires a developer who is seeking to build within a state-designated fault zone such as the Hollywood Earthquake Fault Zone to hire geologists to prove that no active fault is beneath their proposed building or buildings.

After the Millennium Hollywood property owners, wealthy developers based in Manhattan, did additional trenching and soil tests in recent months, and then presented their new geological data to the city, they made the case that no active fault was present. At that point, city officials were obliged to agree, Cochran says. 

“I’m curious about the fallout in terms of reputation and egos of those on the state level who said there was a fault and now Millennium is saying there is no fault,” Cochran said.

Tim McCrink, who heads the California Geological Survey's Alquist-Priolo Earthquake Fault Zone program, hurt pride or no, released a statement yesterday that read, in part:

Because CGS has not reviewed these newer reports in any detail, we cannot comment on the statements made that the faults are inactive. Simply declaring a fault to be inactive does not remove the responsibility to geologically investigate faults within Earthquake Fault Zones where all faults are presumed to be active. So far, no one has presented us with unequivocal evidence — as might be found in trench exposures with quantitative age dating of deformed and undeformed sediments — that would cause us to re-evaluate the Alquist-Priolo zones in Hollywood.

Thus the process in this case didn't quite follow a normal arc.  

Normally, the state designates a quake zone that needs to be studied, which did happen here. The state then released its final map (see below). The state is not into the fine detail, such as trenching the land to find the fault's precise location in order to keep new buildings at a safe distance. It's up to the developer to investigate and hand its data over to the local city to evaluate, Benthien explained.

The Hollywood Fault is in a dense area. The black dot between the fault lines and above the library is Capitol Records.; Credit: California Geological Survey

The Hollywood Fault is in a dense area. The black dot between the fault lines and above the library is Capitol Records.; Credit: California Geological Survey

“It may seem crazy to let the fox rule the henhouse,” Benthien said, “and [Millennium developers] may have put a certain spin on it, but this is the way it’s been done for the last 40 years.”

The difference in this case is that nobody can recall an example in which the state made its determination that an active fault existed beneath a development project site, and the developer then proceeded to conduct a largely secret investigation of the land, withholding data from the California state geologist that is generally shared, and providing it only to the local city — which in this case is already officially on record as wanting to build the two Millennium skyscrapers.

According to Benthien, even challenging the state geologist's maps administratively is uncommon.

So naturally, things are still interesting and debate is still under way.

Currently, Millennium Partners is barred by the courts from building the skyscrapers for an entirely different reason — due to a lawsuit by attorney Robert P. Silverstein on behalf of Hollywood community groups.

Under the judge's ruling earlier in the spring, Millennium Partners cannot proceed with its project until it produces a new, more detailed Environmental Impact Report that pays more attention than its first EIR to basic environmental issues. These include Caltrans' warnings, which were not given much credit in the developers' first EIR, that the two skyscrapers, which will contain about 1 million square feet of space and a small city of workers and residents, are expected to create serious backups on the adjacent 101 freeway and Hollywood surface streets.

On Tuesday, Silverstein had this to say:

The fact remains that the most independent scientists who have looked at the Millennium project are at the California State Geological Survey. Those geologists have said the Millennium property is crossed by an active earthquake fault. Nor have the state geologists flip-flopped on this point, unlike the city's geologists who maintained for the longest time there was no fault on the Millennium property and later, faced with incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, grudgingly conceded there is a fault on the property. Now their fallback argument is that the fault is not active. 

In calling geologists and other experts around California in recent months, the Weekly has not found an instance in which a city has overridden the California Geological Survey after it found an active fault underlying a major proposed development, or in which city officials cooperated when a developer withheld important new geological data from the California Geological Survey.

Los Angeles might be the first.

Silverstein said in his statement, “The city's decision is disappointing but ultimately not surprising. City Hall's pro-developer culture is so well-entrenched it would be hard to imagine city officials reaching any decision other than one that sided with the developer.”

LA Weekly