San Francisco introduces new quake building guidelines

February 5, 2013 9:45:04 PM PST
A voluntary program designed to make San Francisco more earthquake safe could now become mandatory. The proposal, backed by the mayor, was introduced at City Hall Tuesday afternoon. It will force the owners of soft-story buildings to spend thousands of dollars to retrofit.

The Marina District was one of the hot spots during 1989's Loma Prieta earthquake. All these years later after all those buildings buckled, San Francisco is still in danger.

David Bonowitz is a structural engineer working with the city to survey these soft-story structures.

"What might be surprising to some people is that those buildings that collapsed in the Marina District, that same building or buildings very similar to it exist all over the city," he said. "You can find them in the Sunset, you can find them in the Mission."

Soft-story structures are buildings where the first story might be weak because a wide open space has been carved out for a garage, or commercial space. The city has identified nearly 3,000 of the most dangerous and the potential risk they present is staggering.

"The 3,000 buildings that we are talking about house close to 60,000 residents, and about 7,000 workers and 2,000 small businesses," David Chiu, President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, said.

Chiu is co-sponsoring legislation that would force property owners to make seismic upgrades.

The buildings targeted are wood frame, built before 1978, three or more stories, with five or more units of housing.

Former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom tried a voluntary approach but after that failed he called for a mandatory measure.

Now that's the plan. And even though the work could cost close to $150,000, the head of one property owners group is on board.

"I believe that it is a burden to property owners financially and to some of the tenants having the work done in the buildings,"Janan New, of the San Francisco Apartment Association, said. "But you can't put a price on life safety."

According to Chiu, who introduced the measure on Tuesday, banks will offer special financing packages. The city will also provide incentives. The retrofits will be phased in giving some property owners up to seven years to get the job done.

"The building owners and the building industry understands that you either pay now, or pay later," Chiu said.

Under the legislation, building owners who don't comply would get a sort of scarlet letter posted on their buildings. It will be a notice warning potential tenants that the building has not been retrofitted.


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