Owners of apartment buildings that have tuck-under parking will have to seismically retrofit those buildings to protect them from possible earthquake damage thanks to a 3-2 vote by the West Hollywood City Council on Monday night.
Approximately 780 “soft-story” small apartment buildings in the city have until 2023 to be retrofitted to protect them from earthquake damage. “Soft story” apartments, commonly built in the 1950s and 1960s, are wood frame buildings with an open ground floor that is generally used for parking. These open ground floors are especially vulnerable of collapse during earthquakes, but can be reinforced via a steel frame around key pillars.
“This isn’t about saving buildings, it’s about saving lives,” said resident Ed Levin, an architect who worked on the committee that recommended the retrofits. “Other than hospitals, fire and police, we’re not worried about saving the buildings. We’re concerned about keeping people alive in a major earthquake, and these retrofits can help.”
However, Councilmember John D’Amico countered that while it is about saving lives, it also is about saving homes. Many buildings could collapse during a major earthquake, making it difficult to find new housing.
“If a building is red-tagged, [the residents] can’t live there at all,” D’Amico said. “They don’t get $35,000 to relocate themselves, they don’t get a landlord who has Ellised them and has to move them. They just don’t live in West Hollywood anymore.”
The cost of a steel frame is about $40,000, and a typical soft story building would require four such steel frames for a total cost of about $160,000. The city plans to allow building owners to pass some of the retrofit costs on to the building’s residents, but hasn’t determined an exact formula yet. No state or federal grants are available for seismic retrofits, but a few companies do offer loan programs.
The ordinance takes effect in one year, on April 1, 2018. Building owners then have five years to complete the work. City staffers have already held several outreach sessions with building owners, but plan to do many more in the next year.
Councilmember John Heilman voted against the measure, emphasizing that while he is in favor of safety, he is also concerned about the cost to property owners.
“I usually am on the side of tenants, but I feel tonight, I have to be the voice of property owners with respect to the impact of this ordinance,” Heilman said, noting that the ordinance essentially would devalue the property since potential buyers would not be willing to pay top dollar knowing a seismic retrofit financial obligation is looming over a property.
Councilmember John Duran also voted against the measure because he didn’t feel it went far enough. He wanted steel and concrete buildings to be included.
“To not move forward in some way, with some ordinance, I think we’re like ostriches with heads in the sand,” Duran said.
The cost to retrofit those concrete and steel buildings would be substantially more — between $50 and $100 per square foot. A three-story, 40,000 square foot concrete building would cost about $3.4 million to retrofit. A ten-story, 109,000 square foot steel building would cost about $9.8 million.
Heilman noted that the residents of high-rise condominium buildings like Empire West on Holloway Drive or Shoreham Towers on Horn Avenue could end up with a $100,000 retrofit bill, an amount many may not be able to afford.
There are fewer concrete and steel buildings like this in West Hollywood, but the Council intends to discuss retrofitting them within the next two months. Residents and building owners can find more information about the city’s seismic retrofit plans on its website.