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Nearly 2,000 Buildings in Santa Monica at Risk in Earthquake
Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark
Roque & Mark Real Estate
2802 Santa Monica Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA 90404
(310)828-7525 -

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

December 1, 2016 -- Nearly 2,000 buildings are at risk of major damage in Santa Monica when the next big earthquake hits, and as many as 80 percent of them are apartment buildings constructed in the 1950s and 1960s, a City report released Tuesday found.

The so-called “soft story” buildings that could collapse because the first floor is too weak to support upper floors dominate the City list, totaling 1,573 out of 1,962 at-risk structures.

The report -- which the City Council will discuss on Tuesday -- recommends that the City impose a more “robust” mandatory retrofit law, acknowledging the original ordinance has had little success after 17 years.

Picture of "soft story" apartment building
Typical "soft story" building (Photo credit: Society of Architectural Historians, Southern California Chapter)

The report said “many buildings continue to be at risk and it is necessary to update these standards and establish a program to ensure compliance.”

Despite Santa Monica' 1999 retrofit law, the City “has not achieved significant enforcement,” Lucy Jones, a leading seismologist in California, found in her 2016 “Safer Cities Survey.”

Santa Monica’s new ordinance is an attempt to “close that gap,” Jones said in the update of all government efforts in Southern California to improve the earthquake endurance of older buildings.

Specifics, such as addresses of at-risk buildings, are not included in the report by City building and safety officials. But the report includes 900 two-story apartment houses with up to seven units and 300 more apartment buildings with 15 units or more.

Sometimes called “dingbats,” such buildings were popular in Southern California as economical housing in the post WWII building boom ("Santa Monica Library Hosts Panel on Local Phenomenon," March 10, 2016).

But carports and garages typically on the ground floor are not necessarily sturdy enough to hold up the stories above them during the shaking of a quake.

That was the case in Northridge during the 1994 earthquake, when 16 people died after their apartment building collapsed.

The proposed new retrofit program is based, in large part, on the one the City of Los Angeles started in November of 2105. L.A.’s ordinance includes as many as 13,500 “soft story” buildings and 1,500 potentially brittle-to-the- breaking-point concrete buildings."

It is one of the strongest laws of its kind in the country. San Francisco has a similar law, although it affects a third as many buildings and doesn’t include concrete buildings.

Santa Monica’s new program would give some building owners two years to retrofit, although the owners of “soft story” buildings would be granted until 2023 and 2024 to finish the work.

The report also recommends that the City Attorney’s Office be used in the most “egregious” cases of non-compliance.

“With earthquakes a way of life in Santa Monica and the Los Angeles region, it’s not a matter of if, but rather when we could experience a significant seismic event,” the report to the City Council said.

“Earthquakes cause the greatest amount of fatalities in the world, with earthquake deaths resulting primarily from the failure of building construction,” the report said.

Other at-risk buildings include 209 constructed of unreinforced masonry before 1975, including those retrofitted previously, and 34 “concrete tilt ups,” where concrete walls and columns created on site are lifted up, tilted and tied to connect to the roof.

Many such buildings failed in the 1971 Sylmar-San Fernando earthquake because the walls and roofs weren’t connected adequately.

Despite being 14 miles from the epicenter, the 6.7-magnitude Northridge Earthquake hit Santa Monica unusually hard, mostly because of the city’s soft soil and older housing stock, experts believe.

More than 1,600 housing units were damaged or lost, or roughly five percent of the housing stock. A 2004 report by the California Policy Research Center put the cost at repair at $70 million.

The collapse of parts of Interstate 10 made Santa Monica hard to access for rescue workers. Some landmarks, including St. Monica Catholic Church and the 16-story concrete Champagne Towers on Ocean Avenue, were also badly damaged.

The well-known Sea Castle apartment building had to be torn down.

Back when the City first passed a seismic retrofit law, building owners opposed it because of the expense. The report now before the council says the average cost for a six-unit building would be between $30,000 to $60,000, the report said. Owners can pass some on the cost to tenants.

Experts say tens of thousands of buildings in Southern California are at risk in an earthquake. A U.S. Geological Survey simulation of a magnitude 7.8 quake on the San Andreas fault in Southern California projected that 1,500 buildings would collapse, and 300,000 more would suffer serious damage.

At least one fault line City officials consider active runs the length of Santa Monica, and the city is near many others. Santa Monica’s coastline and some parts in its northern section are prone to liquefaction during earthquakes.

The City report also found that 70 "non-ductile concrete" buildings and 80 "steel moment frame" buildings are at risk in the event of an earthquake.

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