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The city’s proposed ordinance would require retrofitting of soft-story buildings like this one, at 1509 Grant St. The “soft story” makes them particularly dangerous in earthquakes. Photo: Google Maps
The city’s proposed ordinance would require retrofitting of soft-story buildings like this one, at 1509 Grant St. The “soft story” makes them particularly dangerous in earthquakes. Photo: Google Maps

By Camille Baptista

Property owners, tenants, and city officials gathered Thursday to discuss a proposed ordinance that would require seismic retrofitting of more than 150 residential buildings with soft, weak or open-front conditions, also called soft-story buildings, which are highly at risk of collapsing in strong earthquakes.

But property owners argued at the meeting that “a host of roadblocks” discourages those who want to retrofit their soft-story buildings.

“It becomes very onerous to put your hand up and try to get a permit,” said Jon Vicars, vice president of Berkeley Property Owners Association.

Vicars and other property owners said they are set back not only by requirements related to seismic retrofitting — including relocation fees for tenants in certain cases — but also by things like parking and fire alarm quotas that arise from other ordinances when any construction is planned on a building.

“The different departments of the city need to figure out what’s most important to them,” said Sam Sorokin, who owns a soft-story building and called himself “a strong proponent of retrofitting.”

The proposed ordinance would implement Phase II of a plan that began in 2005, when the city created an inventory of soft-story buildings with five or more units and required those property owners to notify tenants and post signage declaring the earthquake risks. Owners were also required to have an engineer submit a report detailing the state of each building — specifically, its structural ability to resist collapse in a strong earthquake.

Since 2005, 94% of property owners have complied and submitted engineering evaluation reports (indicated with blue pins on the interactive map above), and 40% completed the retrofitting voluntarily (indicated with yellow pins). Click an address in the list to view the status of that building, or view the map in a new window.

“We very much applaud those owners who went ahead and did the retrofitting,” Jenny McNulty, who came on as the project manager for the soft-story building program less than two weeks ago, said during her presentation at the meeting.

But other owners, many of whom spoke up at Thursday’s meeting, have not been successful in their attempts to retrofit.

“We’d like to make [our] building seismically sound,” one property owner said. He explained that he hired a contractor who ultimately canceled the job because he couldn’t efficiently navigate the city’s permit systems.

“We took our approved plan to the city, and we just determined it wasn’t feasible for us and we weren’t really going to get it done,” the owner said.

Excluding those that were retrofitted, 161 buildings now remain in the inventory, with a total of 1,577 residential units. McNulty said the city hopes to pass the ordinance by December and make it effective Jan. 1, 2014.

If the ordinance passes on time, soft-story building owners will have three years (through 2016) to submit a permit application for seismic retrofitting. Once the permit is processed, retrofitting must be completed within two years.

Sid Lakireddy, president of BPOA, and Vicars said the city should reduce or eliminate permit fees for voluntary retrofit projects.

The fees, which include a zoning review fee, a permit filing fee, a plan check fee and others, depend on the value of the project. For a five-unit residential building, a retrofit project with a cost of $3,280 per unit — the estimated average cost according to a 2009 study by the Rent Stabilization Board — would require about $1,000 in permit fees.

“If someone is going to voluntarily do it, maybe they should get a little bit of a free pass,” Lakireddy said.

The fees would increase for larger buildings or if tenants need to relocate, although Rent Stabilization Board staff attorney Matthew Siegel said most retrofitting can be done without relocating.

Siegel also said some property owners may be able to raise rent to pay for the retrofit, and that if the ordinance passes, the Rent Board may be willing to revise the current regulations to make that option available to more property owners.

“It’s always going to be on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

Wendy Cosin, deputy director of the planning department, said after the meeting that she was “interested in hearing everything.” She said she will pass on the comments and recommendations to the City Council and at upcoming meetings with the Disaster and Fire Safety Commission, the Housing Advisory Commission, the Rent Board, and the Planning Commission. If necessary, a second public meeting will be held early this fall, after UC Berkeley students return from summer vacation.

Camille Baptista is a summer intern at Berkeleyside. She grew up in Berkeley and now studies at Barnard in New York City, where she writes for the Columbia Daily Spectator.

Seismic risk of soft story structures goes unheeded (12.05.11)
Cal building rated very seismically hazardous (03.25.10)

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