Reinforcing the Future, part 2

Santa Monica's Seismic Upgrade program

New rules in Santa Monica will soon require many older buildings to be inspected, and then reinforced to make them less vulnerable to earthquakes. The City has compiled a list of about 2,400 buildings that may require reinforcing. About half of these are two- and three-story apartment buildings, and many of those are mom-and-pop properties housing thousands of rent-controlled tenants. Many owners have little or no experience dealing with City permits and with hiring specialists to complete the reinforcement work. And the costs of reinforcing these buildings to withstand earthquakes could exceed the resources of many owners, who may feel compelled to sell their buildings to developers, putting at risk many rent-control units.

Last week we outlined several ideas to help the process along, including a City liaison to help owners through the process of hiring consultants, obtaining permits and carrying out repairs. This week we focus on streamlining the permit process, obtaining financing and the examples of other cities.

One challenge the City will face: how to deal with the flood of building permit applications that will result from this effort. Not all of the 2,400 buildings on the City’s list will require reinforcing. Some of them simply need to be inspected. But if we assume a worst-case scenario where they would all need building permits, the work needed to process and approve the applications is likely, in our estimation, to result in about 36,000-40,000 man-hours of work by the city. This represents about four-five full-time jobs for the duration of the five-year program.

The problem is that nobody knows when those applications will enter the system. There might be few projects in the first year or two, and a thousand applications in year three. The difficulty in planning for this workload may push the City to contract with outside, private permit-processing companies, as it has done in the past. Hiring outside companies can help with unpredictable workloads, and will avoid increasing the city’s pension burden. But it could also increase the load on the City’s present employees, as they seek to reduce the impact of the earthquake-reinforcing work on small building owners, condominium owners and folks living in rent-controlled apartments. However competent outside companies may be, the rippling effects of this work across thousands of buildings in the city will need to command the city’s full attention to make sure that residents, apartment owners and business owners are protected from unnecessary harm.

As an aside, the flood of building permits will also increase the workload for departments that handle the city’s finances. In our estimation, the earthquake-reinforcement building permits will lead to about $15 million to $20 million in permit fees, which will need to be accounted for and properly distributed. The demand for oversight will be even greater if outside permit-processing contractors are hired to help with the work. The unpredictability of the workflow will create staffing challenges in these departments also. The city is clearly able to handle this kind of workflow uncertainty, judging from past experience. But the impact of this work on the lives of so many people in Santa Monica makes a successful outcome all the more critical.

In Santa Monica, as in many other cities, the building permit process can be challenging because even simple alterations can trigger a cascade of extra requirements and approvals, many of which have little to do with safety. In the case of vulnerable buildings, the permit process can be streamlined to reduce these additional burdens. Examples (some of them admittedly quite technical) include:

  1. Reduce or remove Architectural Review Board approvals for earthquake upgrades. There are over 600 Architectural Review Board permits approved every year. For this urgent public safety issue, the City should avoid adding hundreds of new ARB approval requests per year.
  2. Allow slight shrinking of parking stall dimensions to provide room for new posts or plywood reinforcement. These minimal reductions in dimensions should be approved automatically.
  3. Some buildings will need significant work, such as replacement of foundations, foundation bolting and other tasks. In today’s world these projects frequently become classified by the City as major remodels (or even demolitions), that result in lengthy approval times. The City should allow these earthquake reinforcement upgrades to receive permits quickly and simply, without triggering additional requirements.
  4. With earthquake reinforcement projects that do not change the building size or materials significantly, the City should allow owners to bypass the coastal permit requirements and allow the work to proceed without requiring the typical waivers.
  5. The City should review and approve earthquake reinforcement projects ahead of any other projects that may be in line for a permit.
  6. These are just a few ideas for streamlining the process. The City should make a concerted on-going effort to find more opportunities for making the process simpler and easier to navigate, including the hiring of a liaison to assist those folks unfamiliar with the system.

One important challenge for many building owners will be the financing of the earthquake-retrofit repairs. The impact of these costs could be devastating for small building owners and condo owners. This effect would extend to many renters in rent-controlled apartments if the owners are forced to sell. The city could help here as well, by adopting the examples of other cities.

San Francisco’s Mandatory Soft Story Program has created a partnership between City Hall and a private bank that offers an innovative method of financing repairs. The program will finance 100 percent of the earthquake retrofit costs over a period of 20 years, with the premium payments administered by the city in the form of a tax assessment paid alongside regular property taxes. The program steps owners through the application process and helps them select engineers and contractors. Then, after approval of the loan, the program disburses payments directly to consultants and contractors throughout the life of the project. This means that, apart from obtaining the building permit, the rest of the process is handled through a single entity, which simplifies the project enormously. More details about this program here: http://tinyurl.com/glbzk6r

Fixing buildings that are vulnerable to earthquakes is a critically important task that affects every aspect of life in this city. Our City government has the opportunity to partner with residents and owners to make our community safer, and protect folks who have worked and lived here for many years. Hiring a liaison to help with the process, partnering with banks to provide affordable financing, lightening up on the permit procedures – all of these are important steps that can make the process better for everyone involved.

Daniel Jansenson, Architect, for Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow

Reinforcing the Future, part 1

Santa Monica's Seismic Upgrade program

Hidden in thousands of corners in buildings around the city, vulnerable bolts, screws and welded joints lie in silence, covered in layers of paint, stucco and wood siding, awaiting the next earthquake. The 1994 Northridge quake exposed our city’s vulnerability to unexpected ground shaking: hundreds of buildings in the city were damaged, and many thousands of others – surviving unscathed – remain in a kind of no-man’s-land of structural safety, many of them escaping destruction but their true strength unknown; a mystery to be revealed.

Santa Monica is taking the bull by the horns. Some time soon, new rules will require many older apartment buildings to be inspected, and then reinforced to make them less vulnerable to earthquakes. The city’s new list of about 2,400 vulnerable buildings will be released this month, and about half of those are two- and three-story apartment buildings with parking on the ground floor. Many of these are known as “dingbats,” with first-floor parking accessible from alleys behind the buildings.

Over a thousand buildings in the city fall into this category. Many of them have been in their owners’ hands for many decades, and house thousands of rent-controlled tenants. Hundreds of these buildings are mom-and-pop properties that are the sole or main old-age recourse for many of their owners. More often than not, these people have little experience navigating the City’s complicated permit rules, and even less knowledge of how to find, and deal with, engineers, architects and other consultants they may need. The experience can be costly and nerve-wracking even for people who know their way around the city’s laws. These new rules – vital for the city’s safety – have the potential of causing confusion, fear and even despair, especially among older owners. The costs for these repairs can also be an enormous challenge for small owners, and may require the city to pitch in with assistance.

How can the City help? City Hall should appoint a liaison that will help guide these folks slowly and patiently through the permit process. This person would be a technically-proficient case-agent who would identify the specific steps each owner needs to follow (different for each project), and then provide a friendly helping-hand along the way. This will not only assist these people directly, but – by helping owners upgrade their buildings instead of selling – will help preserve older, rent-controlled apartment buildings which house thousands of long-time renters.

This liaison position would end with the completion of the city’s repair program, in six years (or earlier, if the buildings identified in the city’s list have completed the necessary repairs).

Here are six ideas to help the process along.

  1. Prepare an illustrated, simple-to-understand manual explaining why buildings need reinforcement, and how the work is carried out–a graphic guide to the city’s earthquake reinforcing rules explaining how to follow them, including step-by-step descriptions.
  2. Conduct workshops that describe the process, and schedule question/answer sessions with members of the public. According to Santa Monica’s rules, apartment owners will have six years to complete the work; repeat the workshops throughout this period to make sure that all questions and concerns are shared and answered.
  3. Create a dedicated web page to function as an easy-to-use on-line portal where owners can create an account, post questions and read answers, and follow the permit and inspection process as it unfolds.
  4. Establish public office hours for the liaison to help with walk-up questions from owners and renters, and unexpected emergencies.
  5. Many people do not know how to find professionals that can help with their projects. The City should compile a list of contractors, architects and engineers interested in performing earthquake reinforcement work and seeing it through the permit and inspection process, and make this list available to applicants needing to get their buildings reinforced. The City should not vet or recommend these professionals, but should use standardized forms to help owners compare different consultants by using the same criteria (“apples to apples.”) The City should also keep track of complaints to try and identify problems.
  6. The liaison should conduct interviews with owners after they have reinforced their buildings, to try and learn where they found problems, and then gather ideas about how to solve them in the future

Separately, the city can help streamline the process, and make sure nothing “falls between the cracks” by adding a few simple in-house steps, such as a task force (with members from Building and Safety, Planning, City Manager’s office, Public Works, rent control and housing folks) which would meet regularly and frequently throughout the six years of the program to review and solve unexpected problems.

These ideas, along with others that discuss how to streamline the permit process, how the work may be financed, and precedents in other cities (such as San Francisco) will be described in our next article.

The City should make it easy for members of the public to understand what steps to take, carry out repairs, and get reasonable financing. These efforts would help protect residents against future earthquake damage, preserve our housing stock, and look after many of the city’s most vulnerable citizens.

Dan Jansenson, Architect for Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow (SMa.r.t.)

Even More Wishes!

Wishes for the New Year

We began the new-year with a list of wishes for the betterment of our community. Today, we follow up with another layer of suggestions for an improved Santa Monica.

Let’s police and protect Palisades Park. Recently while walking through that park’s southernmost three blocks we passed twenty-three park visitors actively smoking. A break dancing troupe had blocked off the park’s historic trail at Colorado with yellow cones to mount a dance number. A woman was selling churros from a suitcase on the ramp down to the Pier. Trash was scattered everywhere and many of our less fortunate citizens were bedded down in the park near the former senior center. Yet there were no Public Safety or Police officers to be found. Most of our 8.4 million visitors make Palisades Park and the Pier their first stop in our city. Let’s arrange for a constant public safety presence in our city’s signature historic park.

The Plaza At Santa Monica is a flashpoint in our city’s development squabbles. This proposed high-rise between 4th and 5th Street on Arizona is on City-owned land. The project’s “benefits” include underground parking, yet more office workers, increased traffic, more forced street shading and a lot more concrete. Oh, we get to keep the ice skating rink. We think the scale and the density should be drastically reduced – with no office tenants. How about 25 percent of the space for development and 75 percent to become a new urban park with respite for all in our busy downtown? Shouldn’t the residents benefit from their city-owned land?

Easing traffic remains our residents’ top priority, yet those living on 21st, 23rd, Ashland, Hill, Navy, and Marine suffer through gridlock each weekday afternoon. Street lighting there is sparse. Alleys are used as streets as afternoon rush hour heads towards Venice and Playa Vista. Our City provides no assistance. Are there barriers, stop signs, traffic cops at Ocean Park Blvd. each afternoon? No, nada, nothing.

We lost part of our urban forest during the drought and Santa Monica’s tree canopy was already below average. We must plant more trees in our city. Give our dedicated urban forester the trees he needs to make Arbor Day a year-round event.

City Staff have called the proposed Downtown Community Plan our city’s most inclusive planning effort yet. There has been widespread outreach but rancor still exists. Downtown has expanded and it’s a denser, taller mass of buildings than many of us desired. It’s time for our City council to remember why they moved to our city by the sea. It wasn’t to create a big corporate Santa Monica. They came to a low-rise beach community with a distinct difference from Los Angeles. It had character and uniqueness. Take a look at the development designs proposed for 5th and 6th Streets from Broadway to Colorado and for three corners of Lincoln and Colorado to see our future – remarkably similar to most modern big cities. That’s an indictment, not a compliment.

It’s time to light up our city. Many of our residential streets lack adequate street lighting. Our City staff needs to dip into our coffers to help light up neighborhoods. It will make for a safer city.

There has been a lawsuit filed to force district City Council elections in Santa Monica in order to achieve neighborhood equity. When the new City Attorney arrives, let’s make it a priority to examine this issue fully. Perhaps a citywide, elected mayor with council members devoted to the neighborhoods they live in would be a pleasant transformation.

We applaud the idea of SMC’s Early Childhood Education Center but the location has perplexed many. It’s smack dab in the middle of the Civic Center, away from residential neighborhoods. Every one of the over 100 children attending will have to be driven in and out each day, unless as many have pointed out, its primary users will be downtown employees’ small children. The facility is designed to be an observation lab school for the education of SMC students. The design is done. A 55-year, one dollar/year lease is being negotiated with a hefty City subsidy. Many feel the location should be reimagined. A quieter neighborhood site with lower pollution, closer to SMC’s existing campuses might be available. We know this has been a long admirable struggle for child development advocates. Still, it’s worth a pause to consider changing conditions.

There is a housing crisis developing in our city. Santa Monica College started it by accident, in the Pico Neighborhood. The influx of foreign and out-of-state students has caused rents to rise, affecting the lives of residents. SMC’s leadership needs to address student housing in a forthright manner.

Our seniors have great programs thanks to Wise And Healthy Aging at the Ken Edwards Center. However, the building wasn’t designed for seniors and the location remains a difficult access point for our elder residents. Wouldn’t it be great to have a smaller Civic Center performance space, a great indoor/outdoor senior center and the high school’s new playing fields all in close proximity? That would really define the dictionary definition of the word “Civic”.

Safety concerns dictate that a blinking pedestrian light be placed at 15th and Montana now.

We all cringe at the thought of one-way streets. However, it’s an idea whose time has come for 2nd and 4th Streets downtown. On that subject, our traffic engineers have created a dangerous mess on 2nd Street northbound. Let’s get traffic flowing there again.

We see much that can be improved in Santa Monica. We welcome the increased multi-generational activism in our city. We know that our residents are passionate, involved, smart and caring. We all know what a gem our city is. Santa Monica’s 8.4 square miles and 94,000 plus residents are world class, not because of our buildings but because of our people. We’ll all fortunate to live in this very special place. Let’s keep it that way.

Phil Brock for SMa.r.t

Our 2017 Wish List

Wishes for the New Year

Each year begins with new hopes and dreams and the wish that our lives and our world will become better. With that in mind, SMart takes a look at Santa Monica and expresses our fervent wish for actions that will shape an improved city in 2017.

  • Municipal salaries are out of control. It’s time to begin the fix. Start by reducing the at-will position salaries at City Hall and take a tough stance towards the municipal employee unions as they negotiate new contracts this year. The future burden on taxpayers must be reduced. A ballot initiative was floated in 2014 to limit salaries to a median of those of other California cities plus a potential 25 percent cost-of-living signing bonus. Act now to stop our salaries, pensions and future indebtedness from becoming a ballot issue.
  • Will the proposed Local Coastal Plan become no more than a way to remove impediments to more development? The Coastal Commission, however flawed, has served until now as part of the checks and balances system to protect our coast. Our residents need assurance that this plan won’t add more development along our coastline.
  • Our Pier is a success by all measures. Unfortunately, the Twilight Dance Concerts are now a security burden to our city. They must be canceled and reimagined. Above all let’s remember that while we share our Pier with the world it must retain its local flavor.
  • With all the hoopla about overdevelopment in our downtown, let’s remember that our city has neighborhoods to protect. Let’s focus on our neighborhoods this year.
  • We have great parks in Santa Monica and will add more park acreage in the future. Let’s celebrate our green space this year by continuing to advocate for more breathing room in our dense city.
  • Let’s recognize that our high sales and utility taxes affect our lowest income residents the most. We need to find ways to assist them.
  • Westside Thanksgiving is a hallmark of our compassionate city. This charitable event took place for decades at the Santa Monica Civic. Let’s bring it home.
  • Plunge ahead on implementing the Civic Center Sports Field. Let’s get it designed and built ahead of schedule and under budget.
  • Santa Monica College should move quickly on the needed renovations to their campuses. Taxpayers ponied up more bonded indebtedness in 2016. SMC has pledged to give Santa Monica and Malibu residents priority for admissions and classes. That is good news – but we must go further. Free first year tuition must be offered to public high school graduates within our college district boundaries. Long Beach does it. Los Angeles may follow suit. Santa Monica should have led the way on this.
  • The City Council should give serious consideration to the appeal of the City Services Building that will be attached to City Hall. The cost clearly outweighs the benefits of being environmentally forward. We can be great stewards of the environment while also being good stewards of our taxpayers’ dollars. Let’s set an example of good governance. It’s not Monopoly money that’s paying for this building.
  • Over 19,000 residents voted for Measure LV. It lost. However, no one should mistake its loss for carte blanche to add height and density “willy-nilly” to our city. Developers paid abundantly for this victory. Imagine the amount of developer money it will take to defeat the next measure. The City Council and planning staff need to vote for a height and density plan that will work in our city and will calm tempers. And, let us remind you, the successor to Measure LV is already in the planning stages.
  • We have great non-profit, philanthropic service clubs in our city. Among them are the Kiwanis, Lions and Rotary. They have collectively made a positive impact in our community for almost a century yet they have no recognition at our city’s borders as they do in many cities. Let’s give these service clubs the chance to place their logos at major entrances to Santa Monica once again.
  • Move quickly to integrate the Fisher Lumber site into Memorial Park. It’s been over a decade. Let’s make sure there are no further delays.
  • Santa Monica is a world-class artistic community where over 40 percent of our community make their living in the arts (music, visual arts, fine art, film, television, theatre, literary, dance, architecture and more). Our parks, public and private spaces should be filled with performances and artwork of all types. Let’s encourage our resident artists to participate with a minimum of red tape. Make Music Day should be a common occurrence – not just once a year. Our city should be a showplace for public art.
  • Let’s vow that this will be a year of conversation between neighbors. The enemy is oftentimes within us. Truth can’t be obtained without essential listening. City Hall can’t be seen as a monolith for developer interests. It’s time for our city government and our residents to sit down with each other without shouting, without recriminations, and talk with each other. It’s also time for a city ombudsman to expedite residents’ concerns and help them navigate City Hall.
    Samohi is the pride of our city. It is celebrating 125 years of service to our city yet much of its signage is missing or damaged. Facilities are run-down, paint is peeling and it’s fundamentally embarrassing to students, faculty and our community. Let’s fix what’s broken…now.
  • North/South transportation links within our city are far from stellar. It’s time for our own DASH bus system to ensure accessibility to the Expo stations and across town. Cheap, efficient and timely routes are needed. We can do this!

These are a few of our 2017 wishes for a better Santa Monica. We’ll have more next week in this space.

Phil Brock for SMa.r.t