Draft 'Soft Story' Ordinance Mandating Retrofit Construction at Nearly 500 Pasadena Buildings Goes Before Council Tonight

Published : Monday, February 25, 2019 | 6:20 AM

Pasadena is getting closer to issuing an ordinance that would require the owners of almost 500 “soft story” residential buildings in the City to retrofit their property to comply with updated seismic standards.

At Monday’s City Council meeting, the Department of Planning and Community Development will present draft regulations that it proposes for an ordinance amending Title 14 of the Pasadena Municipal Code, which governs buildings and construction.

The Department also recommends the City Attorney be directed to prepare the final language for the amending ordinance based on the draft within 60 days.

If passed, the ordinance would affect 472 “soft story” residential buildings throughout Pasadena. These buildings contain an approximate total of 4,500 residential that are mostly made of wood and were constructed between the 1920s and 1970s, according to a Planning Department report.

“Soft story” buildings are usually wood-framed buildings with more than one story that typically have extensive ground-story windows, garage doors, or open-air spaces used as tuck-under parking, with little or no enclosing solid wall. These buildings are relatively soft or weak in terms of load resistance and are generally more vulnerable to collapse during an earthquake.

Soft story failure is believed to have been responsible for nearly half of all homes that became uninhabitable after the 1989 Lorna Prieta and 1994 Northridge earthquakes, accounting for significant human loss and property damage.

To prevent extensive injuries and damage during a significant earthquake, the recommended ordinance will require retrofits to all existing wood-framed or partially wood-framed multiple-family residential buildings with four or more units, two or more stories with the ground floor or basement containing parking or other similar open-floor space that causes soft, weak, or open-front wall lines, and where the structure was built under the building code standards enacted prior to January 1, 1978.

Commercial buildings, hotels and motels will not be included, according to the Planning Department’s proposed regulations. Single-story multiple-family structures will also not be included.

The Planning Department also recommends categorizing the affected structures into three separate tiers and prioritizing the completion of the retrofits according to those categories.

As to timelines for the retrofits, the Department looked at other jurisdictions that have adopted a soft story retrofit ordinance, including Los Angeles, Santa Monica and West Hollywood.

Among these, Los Angeles has the largest inventory of soft-story buildings – more than 16,000 – and gave property owners seven years to complete the retrofit.

Considering that the owners of soft story houses in Pasadena would need to secure funding and retain professional engineering services before completing construction, the Planning Department is proposing they be allowed five years to complete the retrofits, with up to two six-month extensions.

According to the proposed regulations, owners who fail to comply with the timeframes of the ordinance, or who fail to complete the retrofit requirements, shall be charged with a misdemeanor and may be subject to administrative fines of up to $1,000 per day, or imprisonment for not more than six months, or both fines and imprisonment.

The proposed regulations said any building which does not comply within the specified timeframes shall be declared unsafe and a notice shall be recorded on the title of the property indicating the building or buildings is in violation of the proposed ordinance.

Owners who fail to comply shall also be responsible for the City’s enforcement costs associated with their failure to comply, the proposed regulations showed.

In its report for the City Council, the Planning Department said they have submitted a Notice of Interest last October to the California Office of Emergency Services (CalOES) for a Section 404 Hazard Mitigation grant to receive FEMA funding that would assist owners with a portion of the required retrofit costs.

The amount of the grant is $1.25 million and would require a City match of just over $300,000. Pasadena has been selected to proceed with the second phase of the selection process, and CalOES is expected to make a final selection of the grant recipients in the fall, the report said.

If the City gets the grant, it will help offset the cost of the retrofits to the property owners.

In addition, the Planning Department is recommending that building permits for soft story retrofit projects be allowed a rebate from the City’s construction tax.

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