Soft story structures, like this apartment block on Regent Street, are particularly vulnerable in quakes. Photos: Lance Knobel

Soft story structures — buildings with large openings at ground level for garages or tuck-under parking — pose a particular hazard of serious damage, including collapse, in seismic activity. Because of the danger, Berkeley passed its soft story ordinance in 2005, mandating that soft story buildings with five or more units notify tenants of the danger and perform a seismic analysis. But, if a walking survey on Saturday is any indication, the ordinance is going largely unheeded.

Rent board commissioner Igor Tregub organized the survey as part of what he called a “seismic compliance day of action”. Tregub and his interns picked several dozen buildings from the city’s soft story inventory, and led a tour of the buildings. The idea was both to see whether the ordinance was being followed and to alert tenants to the potential dangers. The survey was a personal project of Tregub’s, not an official rent board initiative.

None of the 15 buildings visited on Saturday had any visible notice, contrary to the requirements of the ordinance. There were also no signs of retrofits, which would increase the safety in the event of a quake (retrofits are not required by the ordinance).

Examining a soft story structuring on Channing during Saturday's tour

“This is a good first step to alerting people to what we’re doing in the city,” said councilmember Linda Maio, speaking before the walking tour. “It’s critical to do this. We’re talking about a lot of students living in these buildings.”

“These are probably the first apartments students have been living in,” said Michael Ellison, ASUC housing director. “They don’t know what to look for.”

The intent of the ordinance was precisely to overcome that lack of knowledge. When buildings are identified as potentially hazardous, the ordinance requires “a clearly visible warning sign” reading: “Earthquake Warning. This is a soft story building with a soft, weak, or open front ground floor. You may not be safe inside or near such buildings during an earthquake.” The sign must be at least 8×10 inches and the first two words must be at least 50-point bold type. Additionally, tenants must be notified in writing of the hazard.

According to Tregub, more than 75% of the buildings surveyed earlier this year by the city are not seismically retrofitted, and would be susceptible to partial or total collapse in a large quake. Efforts to mandate seismic retrofitting of soft-story residential or mixed-use properties by the City of Berkeley and to enforce the existing ordinance have been stymied over a lack of funding, staffing, and prioritization, he said.

Tregub said there is active discussion at the staff level in the city about creating a “phase two” of the ordinance that would mandate seismic retrofits for soft story structures.

As poor as compliance may be in structures covered by the ordinance, Tregub and Maio pointed out that many buildings with fewer than five rental units also posed a danger and are not covered by the law.

Phyllis Fox, a civil engineer who joined Saturday’s walking tour, said she lives near a house on Etna Street which has two apartments over a garage. Although she has explained the danger to the landlord, she said he has no interest in acting. She hopes an amended ordinance might force some action.

“We’ll work on figuring this out,” Maio said. “It will need both the rent board and the city council to take action. We’re going to have to have a financing mechanism for it to work.”


Cal building rated very seismically unsafe [03.25.10] 

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...