City Identifies Almost 500 Pasadena Buildings Vulnerable to Collapse During an Earthquake

Pasadena could require owners of 493 “soft story” wood buildings to retrofit their structures; final ordinance could become law in 2019

Published : Wednesday, May 16, 2018 | 5:52 AM

Image courtesy Titan Contracting Services

[Updated]  The City has begun work on drafting an ordinance which could require the owners of as many as 493 “soft story” apartment and office buildings in Pasadena to retrofit their buildings to prevent collapse during an earthquake.

“Soft story” buildings are wood-frame buildings with more than one story that typically have extensive ground story windows, garage doors, or open-air spaces (such as “tuck under” parking common in apartment buildings) with few or no enclosing walls.

“They are a particularly dangerous type of building,” Caltech Seismological Laboratory Research Associate and former U.S. Geological Survey Science Advisor for Risk Reduction Dr. Lucy Jones said this week, citing “the apartment building that collapsed in the Northridge earthquake, killing 17 people.”

“We’ve known their problems, we haven’t allowed them to be built that way since the 1978 building code changed the requirements,” Jones continued. “But of course lots of the buildings in Southern California were built before then, and this is a particularly common type of structure for apartment buildings.”

The proposed new City ordinance would require evaluation and the possible retrofitting of hundreds of “soft story” buildings throughout Pasadena.

In recent years, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and West Hollywood have similarly required retrofits to potentially vulnerable buildings.

According to Eran Itzhaki of Titan Contracting Services in West Hollywood, an experienced contractor which specializes in “soft story” retrofits, simply creating the engineering plans for contractors for such projects can range from $5,000 to $12,000 per building.

Itzhaki said that a core element of retrofitting is the so-called “moment frame” reinforcement. He said that a complete moment frame can cost $30,000-$50,000 each and that the “rule of thumb” is that one such frame is required for every four parking spaces in a building.

The City has contracted with Degenkolb Engineers to develop the multifamily wood building soft story ordinance and to form an Advisory Group composed of stakeholders, such city technical staff, local structural engineers and architects, Caltech members, local developers, local real estate professionals, and local housing associations.

The Advisory Group will help recommendations to City staff on non-technical items such as timeframes and prioritization.

As part of developing the ordinance, the City will also create a Technical Committee of experienced members of the Structural Engineers Association of Southern California (SEAOSC) to review the technical portions of the ordinance and provide comments to staff and hold two community outreach meetings to present the ordinance to the public and receive comments.

The City Planning Department is anticipating drafting the ordinance for review in the fall of this year and hopes to have the ordinance adopted in the fall or winter of 2019.

Vice Mayor John Kennedy declined to comment on costs or the particulars of what the final ordinance might require.

“It’s just a matter of time when we will have that next major earthquake. Balance that number with the ability to pay, because we know that we cannot require what can’t be done,” he said.

“Meaning,” he continued, “if the dollar figure is so high that the majority of folks who are required to do retrofits cannot afford to do this, then [several] things have to happen; there’s a disposal of the property to someone who can afford it; or government has to roll in the retrofit; or, there has to be an entity that makes financing of the retrofit economically feasible. Public safety and community safety is number one, not only from my perspective but probably from the perspective of the Mayor and my colleagues in the City Council.”

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