Newsom to explore building retrofit plan

January 22, 2009 9:04:32 AM PST
The city of San Francisco will soon take a hard look at a plan to force property owners to perform expensive earthquake retrofits on their buildings. The proposal is contained in a report that's about to land on Mayor Newsom's desk

Last summer the city called on property owners to start voluntarily retrofitting seismically-unsafe homes, many of which are in the North Beach neighborhood. Incentives include speeding up the permit process and waiving permit fees. But now Mayor Newsom is gearing up to review a report that advises the city to mandate upgrades.

The structures in jeopardy are wood-frame, soft story buildings -- soft because they're missing the support of a sheer wall, usually the front wall, which helps resist movement during an earthquake. Instead there are windows or a garage, and apartments and homes are built on top.

A draft report just reviewed by the city's building inspection commission recommends that at minimum the city require repairs of the weakest buildings most likely to collapse -- there are 2,800 of these. The city says 17,000 soft story buildings were damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

The new city-funded study says another major quake could severely damage or destroy thousands more of these hazardous soft-story buildings. Most are rental apartments and are concentrated in the six neighborhoods of North Beach, Pacific Heights, the Mission, the Sunset, the Richmond and the Western Addition.

Just the fraction of the city's buildings analyzed house about 60,000 residents and 7,000 employees. Retrofits are estimated to cost $9,000 to $28,000 per residential unit.

The mayor is scheduled to review a final version of the building report next week. While the need to seismically-retrofit is logical, the most conflicting issue may be where the money will come from - property owners may not be financially able to do the work. And the city is facing a $575 million budget deficit, so offering low-interest loans backed by city bonds could be difficult.