Reinforcing the Future, part 1

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.)