Inspections performed in Berkeley since last year’s deadly balcony collapse at Library Gardens found more than 400 buildings that needed work out of nearly 2,200 with weather-exposed elements, such as balconies, stairways, decks and landings, according to a city report released Wednesday afternoon.
The inspections were part of the city’s response to the Library Gardens tragedy last June, which killed six young people and seriously injured seven others when a fifth-floor balcony broke off a downtown Berkeley apartment building during a birthday celebration.
Council voted in July to require the inspection by Jan. 15, and every following three years, of all weather-exposed exterior elements in properties with at least three units. The city also stiffened requirements about building materials, venting and access to make inspections easier to do and allow for better airflow to elements that could be impacted by water damage and other problems.
Read complete Berkeleyside coverage about the balcony collapse.
The Berkeley City Council is slated to receive an update Feb. 23 about the “Exterior Elevated Elements” (E3) program, which mandates the inspections.
“We had a tragedy that happened and we responded,” said Eric Angstadt, Berkeley’s planning director. “This is something good that came out of something terrible. I’m really proud of my department: what we did and what we’re continuing to do.”
When the program began, the city had no database that specifically listed which properties might have elements that needed inspection. Staff sent out nearly 6,100 letters to property owners of multi-family buildings to let them know they might need to comply with the new inspection rules. The city got about 4,400 letters back.
About half of those responses indicated that the property had no exterior elements that needed inspection. Another 1,774 turned in completed inspection forms that showed no problems. But 402 properties needed “corrective work,” licensed inspectors found.
Problems ran the gamut from minor water intrusion to major leaks, Angstadt said. More than 340 inspectors participated in completing the certifications. The city did not track how many units, or individual elements, needed repairs, or compile statistics about the type of repairs needed.
“It was major enough that it needed to be corrected now,” Angstadt said, of the problems. Added city spokesman Matthai Chakko: “Every single one was significant enough that the inspector would not sign off on its safety.”
Some of that work may still be in progress — property owners had 90 days to make the fixes — but Chakko said much of it has been done.
“These properties in Berkeley have been made safer through this program in a very short amount of time,” he said.
Going forward, Angstadt said the planning department will ask council for more resources to follow up with property owners who did not respond, and confirm that those who said no work was needed were correct.
Chakko noted that even property owners who did not reply are still required by law to make sure their properties are up to the city’s standards, with inspections completed if they have the type of elements outlined in the code: “It’s the responsibility of each of those property owners to have that done and have that signed off and, anybody who has not done that, they have not complied with the law.”
According to the staff report prepared for the Feb. 23 council meeting, Angstadt will be asking officials to clarify some of the language about what must be inspected, and what inspection and certification entails; have inspections every five years rather than every three; and increase the height of elements that must be inspected from 30 inches to 6 feet above grade.
This “will reduce the number of required inspections and the cost of operating the program, without jeopardizing the program goal of preserving public safety,” according to the report.
Chakko said, despite some initial resistance to the program, many participants actually thanked the city for coming up with the requirements.
“One of the things that was striking about this program was that everybody the department dealt with ended up saying this was the right thing to do,” he said. “They were surprised that they found damage. They were glad, and they fixed it.”
According to a November letter from Deputy Director Richard Weinert of the state Department of Housing and Community Development’s Division of Codes and Standards, the state plans to work with the city “to mitigate the negative effects of weather degradation of wood structures to prevent tragedies like the one that impacted the Berkeley community.”
Weinert noted that the state plans to “investigate the issues surrounding the degradation of wood structures and how to protect against such degradation” through a series of stakeholder meetings this year.
In the letter, he also summarized the remarks of a representative from his office, Assistant Deputy Director Shawn Huff, who had publicly “commended the City for its swift action in adopting a local ordinance to address weather-exposed elements which project from structures without additional support and suggested other local jurisdictions may wish to consider doing the same in the interim while any potential code changes are considered.”
Kelly Cobeen, president of the Structural Engineers Association of California, said the organization was part of the task force that helped put together the guidelines now being used in Berkeley. She credited the city for its inclusive process and its work with building professionals.
Cobeen said she believed the program “would be a very significant contributor to improving the safety of those exposed elements that are being inspected,” and said other cities might want to pay attention to what Berkeley and San Francisco — which has its own guidelines in place — are doing.
“So far I haven’t heard discussion from other cities,” she said. “It remains an open question.”
Also still an open question is what might result from the criminal investigation launched last year by the Alameda County district attorney’s office into the cause of the balcony collapse. The DA’s office has not released any information about that investigation since its initial announcement in June. Teresa Drenick, spokeswoman for the office, confirmed Wednesday afternoon however that the investigation is ongoing.
Planning director Angstadt said Wednesday that he looks forward to seeing the inspection program continue into the future and believes city buildings and residents will be safer as a result.
“We put together an intelligent and well-designed program to drastically lower the probablility of this happening again,” he said. “And we did it in a time frame that is not usually seen in civil service.”
Learn more about the E3 program on the city’s website. Residents with questions about the safety of their buildings can learn how to reach the city to file complaints or for additional information.
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