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Mandatory Earthquake Retrofit Proposal Advances Quickly in San Francisco City Hall

SF Public Press
 — Feb 5 2013 - 5:38pm

Listen to Public Press reporter Noah Arroyo on KQED’s Forum:

San Francisco Supervisor David Chiu Tuesday unveiled legislation to make seismic retrofits mandatory for so-called soft-story buildings throughout the city.

Chiu called the proposal to make retrofitting mandatory in stages by 2020 the “next major step to ensure that we are prepared for the next big one.” He said he expected a major quake, which could happen anytime, could be two to three times stronger than the 1989 Loma Prieta quake that rendered 7,700 to 16,000 buildings statewide.

A major earthquake can strike at any time. There is roughly a 28 percent chance that an earthquake of at least magnitude-6.7 will hit the Bay Area within 10 years, according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Working Group on California Earthquake Probabilities.

Supervisor Scott Wiener, who co-sponsored the legislation, said that when the big quake comes, “we will be in a world of hurt” unless the city’s soft-story buildings get retrofitted.

The city estimates that roughly 3,000 San Francisco buildings possess a first floor with big windows or garages, making them susceptible to collapse beneath the rest of the building during a quake. Because building owners have not retrofitted on their own, policy makers have crafted legislation that would force them to do the work.

Only 53 soft-story buildings have been reinforced through the city’s voluntary retrofit program, between early 2009 and September 2012. That is 2 percent of the estimated number of buildings that need reinforcing.

“I really want to stress what a significant step this has been,” Wiener said. “We’ve been talking about the need to retrofit soft-story buildings for many, many years. We’ve known about it since Loma Prieta.”

The retrofits would cost an average of $10,000 to $20,000 per apartment unit, structural engineer Chris Poland said in a half-hour panel discussion on KQED’s “Forum” Tuesday morning that was prompted by the Public Press’ reporting. At this price, the cheapest retrofits might cost somewhere around $50,000 to $100,000 for a whole building. The legislation would cover wood-frame buildings built before 1978 with five or more apartments.

Chiu thanked “the banking community” for working with him and the office of Mayor Ed Lee to provide a menu of financing options for building owners.

Patrick Otellini, manager of the Earthquake Safety Implementation Program, has courted several banks about the possibility of helping building owners pay for retrofits. He said he will speak with the press in the near future lay out those specifics.

This story is a follow-up to a package of stories about earthquake safety in the Winter 2012-2013 print edition of the San Francisco Public Press.

For more details on the proposal, listen to a half-hour program on earthquake retrofits on KQED-FM’s “Forum” talk show that aired Tuesday morning.