Thousands of Bay Area apartment buildings with structurally weak first stories could collapse in a major earthquake, risking the lives of those who reside in them and leaving tens of thousands of families homeless, but there is no coordinated effort in the region to retrofit these risky structures.
That's left a patchwork of efforts, with some cities acting aggressively to solve the so-called "soft story" problem while others have done little, citing the high cost and fears of legal liability. The 6.0 Napa earthquake Aug. 24, the largest in California in 20 years, has again drawn attention to the dangers of older buildings that don't meet current seismic standards.
Officials in Oakland and San Francisco, which are crossed by major earthquake faults and where many vulnerable buildings are concentrated, have launched aggressive retrofit programs. San Jose has not. Berkeley, Alameda and Fremont have also pushed retrofitting the buildings, but other cities such as Mountain View and Concord are just taking stock of the problem.
"This could be our Katrina," said Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, referring to the deadly 2005 hurricane. She is working on an ordinance to require owners of about 1,400 Oakland apartment buildings to retrofit them.
A major quake on the Hayward fault could destroy 15,000 rental units, or about a quarter to a third of the city's rental housing, she said, citing a U.S. Geological Survey report. "If we fix it we can save lots of lives and maintain the cultural integrity of the city and the balance of residents." Many of the older apartments house lower-income families, she noted.
Many soft-story buildings were built during the 1960s and '70s with "tuck-under" parking on the ground floor. The structures tend to collapse on the open parking area during a quake.
"At the time these were being built, we didn't have the engineering knowledge to build them the right way," said Danielle Hutchings Mieler, earthquake and hazards program coordinator for the Association of Bay Area Governments. "Now we do."
Many are easily retrofitted with steel reinforcing, but forcing owners of the buildings to do the work is a political hot potato, since it can cost $80,000 for a 20-unit building -- a big bill for what are often mom-and-pop apartment owners.
After the Northridge earthquake in early 1994 highlighted the danger of apartments with unreinforced, open first floors -- in one complex, 16 people died when the building collapsed -- some Bay Area cities inventoried their soft-story apartments but didn't do much else, while others began retrofit plans. In some cases, the goal was to provide emergency responders with a map of where they were likely to find collapsed apartment buildings after a quake.
San Jose's emergency preparedness department conducted workshops for apartment owners and hired a Bay Area engineering firm to design a generic retrofit. But only three owners applied for permits to do retrofits, according to Frannie Edwards, a political science professor at San Jose State who was the city's director of emergency preparedness from 1991 to 2006.
From the San Jose's perspective, she said, "these were privately owned properties that people owned for profit and there was no public purpose spending public money fixing other people's property." The city attorney also claimed that identifying buildings with weak first stories could open the city to lawsuits, Edwards said. She said she rescued some of the materials from that project from a trash bin and they're available if the city's interested.
A survey by San Jose State's Collaborative for Disaster Mitigation found 2,630 soft-story multifamily buildings in Santa Clara County, or about 36 percent of all multifamily buildings. Nearly 1,100 were in San Jose.
San Jose doesn't have a program to address soft-story apartments, said Chu Chang, the city's chief building official. "We'd like to explore it,'' he added.
"I don't regard it as a failure," Fred Turner, an engineer with the California Seismic Safety Commission, said of San Jose's decision not to pursue retrofitting. "It's just an effort that maybe has been postponed.'' Other Bay Area cities have used San Jose's materials, he said.
There's no state law requiring apartment owners to evaluate and upgrade their soft-story buildings, Turner said. Because circumstances vary, it makes sense to let local agencies deal with the problem, he said.
In 1998, San Francisco launched a nine-year study of its earthquake risks. Now the city is requiring the retrofitting of 3,500 to 4,000 pre-1978 multifamily apartments with soft-story ground floors.
The buildings are the homes of 60,000 San Franciscans and also house 2,000 small neighborhood-serving businesses that provide about 7,000 local jobs, according to Patrick Otellini, director of the city's earthquake safety program. Retrofitting the buildings will allow residents to shelter in place, he said. "And then you automatically speed up your recovery process," he added.
San Francisco learned the hard way that these buildings were vulnerable. In the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, soft-story apartment complexes collapsed in the Marina district, leaving many residents homeless. Three people were killed when a four-story apartment building with a soft story collapsed. Buildings with soft stories that were on street corners had the most extensive damage, according to the U.S. Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology report on the quake.
"The real important thing for people to understand is that a soft-story retrofit is designed to keep tenants in buildings after an earthquake so that you don't have all this displacement and red-tagging," said Mark Barbagelata of Seismic Retrofitters in San Francisco. "They're ultimately designed so you can escape the building with your life."
Still, "it's fair to say" that soft-story retrofits haven't yet been tested in a major quake, said Christopher Rojahn, executive director of the engineering firm Applied Technology Council in Redwood City.
Other cities that have been aggressively pushing retrofitting programs include Fremont and Berkeley.
"We have been on the cutting edge as far as making sure that buildings get retrofitted," said Fremont Community Development Director Jeff Schwob. About 80 percent of the city's soft-story apartments have been retrofitted so far.
Berkeley inventoried soft-story apartments in 2005 and required owners to get an engineering study recommending how to retrofit them. City Planning Director Eric Angstadt said the city has followed up this year with a law giving owners five years to retrofit. Already, about 20 have complied, Angstadt said.
Contact Pete Carey at 408-920-5419. Follow him at Twitter.com/petecarey.