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Pasadena Central Library Closed Due to Seismic Safety Issues

Structural assessment reveals that most of the building is comprised of unreinforced masonry bearing walls that support concrete floors and walls

Published on Tuesday, May 4, 2021 | 9:02 am
(Image courtesy City of Pasadena)

[UPDATED to include details on recent plans to repair the building]

The historic Pasadena Central Library at 285 E. Walnut St. on Monday was ordered to close until further notice due to its construction of unreinforced masonry.

“The purpose of this notice is to make you aware of the dangerous condition present therein,” wrote city Building Official Sarkis Nazerian in his ‘Not To Occupy Building’ order.

A placard placed on the structure states “Earthquake warning: This is an unreinforced masonry building. You may not be safe inside or near an unreinforced masonry building during an earthquake.”

In an email to Pasadena Now, Mayor Victor Gordo said elected and City Hall officials will work together to preserve the building.

“Our Central Library is not only a beautiful, historic, and beloved building, it is also a tremendous educational asset for Pasadena’s residents,” Gordo said. “Discovering that it is in danger and unsafe to occupy poses a significant challenge, but one that I know we will work together to address. Together with City staff and my council colleagues, we will move swiftly to determine the extent of the work needed to preserve our beautiful library for generations to come.”

In-person library services, which were halted due to the coronavirus pandemic, recently resumed on a part-time basis following the county’s move into the less-restrictive orange tier now must be stopped at the site again.

The recent structural assessment conducted as part of the scope of work for the Central Library Building Systems and Structural Assessment Capital Improvement Project revealed that most of the building is comprised of unreinforced masonry (URM) bearing walls that support concrete floors and walls.

URM buildings have been widely recognized as a hazard to life safety due to their potential to collapse during an earthquake. While Pasadena passed an ordinance in 1993 mandating all URM buildings to be retrofitted, vacated or demolished.

In 2003, the City Council approved a plan for the seismic retrofit, historic restoration and infrastructure improvements of City Hall. The retrofit cost $117 million.

Seismic retrofit of thay building included the installation of structural base isolators that now allow the building to withstand future earthquake activity.

No record has been found as to why Central Library was not identified and addressed as a URM building, according to the city. But now that it has been identified, it is clear that Central Library is not in conformance with the city’s URM Ordinance.

Additionally, the results of the review provided to the city indicate that Central Library does not meet current seismic standards recommended by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

“This is devastating news for us all. Central Library is more than just a building; it’s where generations of families have grown up, and an iconic building that completes our Civic Center as one of Pasadena’s treasures,” said City Manager Steve Mermell.

“We intend to do everything in our power to assess the severity of the problem and to work toward its resolution,” Mermell said. “This library cannot remain vacant, and we need to conserve it for another century of use.”

In March Pasadena Now reported that $30 million would be spent on building system upgrades and replacements at the Central Library including a fire alarm system and a new fire sprinkler system; roof replacement; replacement of domestic, sanitary, and stormwater piping systems, replacement of mechanical heating and cooling systems, including ductwork, electrical upgrades, seismic structural upgrades, and improvements to the exterior courtyard.

It is not known if additional funds will be required to repair the building and how long it will be closed.

“We are anxious to have more information about what current evaluations have revealed,” said Sue Mossman, executive director of Pasadena Heritage. “It is hard to believe that with all the work that has been done at the building over the years, this information is just coming to light? And, of course, the Central Library has withstood several earthquakes in its lifetime, so how did it perform? Was there any evidence of failure at those times? When the stacks were expanded and the rear entrance designed, this issue apparently did not come up. Did that project add any seismic strength or stability to the building?”

Mossman said Pasadena Heritage is “alarmed and distressed” to hear the news.

“It is one of the most refined and beautiful buildings we have in Pasadena,” Mossman said. “I truly love this building and have spent countlessy happy hours there over my life in Pasadena. , We are so fortunate to have all our historic libraries and it’s good to know other branches can pick up the programs and services. We just want the best for ithis beloved historic place. We’re eager for more information and to learn how Pasadena Heritage can help.”

When asked why city officials did not know about the issues with the library earlier Vice Mayor Andy Wilson called it an “excellent question” and added:

“The building codes were set in 1993 in terms of making sure these unreinforced buildings were addressed. So I think that’s the big question. We were all quite surprised to find that that building had not been addressed decades earlier. I think that’s the answer that the council is eager to find out.”

Designed by renowned architect Myron Hunt in 1924, Central Library was the first building completed in Pasadena’s historic Civic Center Plan. The library is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Averaging 1,000 daily visitors, the library serves as an educational and community cornerstone for all to gather, learn, explore ideas, and connect with people and resources.

Library staff are working on interim solutions to meet the needs of the community. This includes developing short-term solutions to ensure the services and programs offered by Central Library continue at other library locations.

Hastings and La Pintoresca Branch Libraries also recently reopened with limited hours. Those operational hours will be expanded by the end of this week.
Lamanda Park, Santa Catalina, Linda Vista, and San Rafael Branch Libraries will open the week of May 10. Hill Avenue Branch Library will offer curbside pick-up for materials usually available at Central Library.

Central Library staff will be reassigned to other branches in order to offer expanded service hours at those locations. Library phone, chat, online content, and programming will continue without change.

David Cross contributed to this story.


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