When it Comes to Seismic Safety, It's Each City for Itself

Buildings constructed of unreinforced masonry get much if not most of the media's attention on seismic safety, but so-called 'soft story' wood buildings, often with garages on the ground floor, compose the greatest numbers of vulnerable buildings.
August 28, 2014, 2pm PDT | Irvin Dawid
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The August 24, 6.0 earthquake centered in Napa, Calif. may have caused $1 billion worth of damage and may also shake up state and city lawmakers to do more to reinforce vulnerable buildings. We look at both both unreinforced masonry and soft story buildings from a Bay Area perspective. Only one type has state law addressing retrofit.

"Although a 1986 state law mandates that local government identify unreinforced-masonry buildings, what the cities do about the problem is up to them. Some have mandatory compliance rules, while some make them voluntary," write Carla Marinucci, John Coté and J.K. Dineen of the San Francisco Chronicle.

As a result, safety is "still a bit of a piecemeal" from city to city, Hutchings Mieler said. "Local governments approach it all very differently - and even in the Bay Area, we have very different standards, city to city and county to county.

Contrast San Francisco's mandatory approach with Oakland's voluntary one.

  • San Francisco has pursued legal action against some property owners over their failure to comply with the city's law, which was passed in 1992. Only a handful of buildings are still out of compliance, the city says.
  • Oakland still has 80 to 90 unreinforced masonry buildings, said Deborah Sandercock, a city building official. Progress has been minimal in recent years because the city eliminated the building department's seismic safety division during the economic crisis, she said.

However, there is no legal requirement to reinforce "the thousands of structures [in Bay Area cities] known as soft-story buildings. In San Francisco alone, there are more than 4,000 of these multistory, wood-frame buildings with a garage, large windows or similar opening on the ground floor," write Marinucci, Coté and Dineen.

Until last year, only about 50 San Francisco property owners retrofitted their buildings, enticed by "a break on planning fees and expedited permitting," they note. Supervisors passed legislation last year to require reinforcement "over the next four to seven years." However, it only covers "wood-frame soft-story buildings built before 1978 that are at least three stories high and contain five or more dwelling units," they add.

Reinforcing consists of "installing walls below the floor at risk. The new walls resist being moved sideways by a quake," writes Alejandro Lazo of The Wall Street Journal (posted here).

For retrofitting historic buildings, state lawmakers introduced legislation "that would give property owners a 20 percent tax credit to help defray the cost. AB 1999 would end California's status as one of 15 states that do not offer credits for restoring historic structures," they add. The bill is in the Assembly awaiting concurrence with Senate amendments.

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Published on Tuesday, August 26, 2014 in San Francisco Chronicle
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