Momentum slows on fixing S.F’s dangerous brick buildings
26 Oct 2014
Eight years ago, 2,100 dangerous buildings in San Francisco were supposed to have been retrofitted to better withstand a major earthquake. But a small number of those unreinforced brick buildings — 29 buildings clustered at 19 sites — never met that deadline and still could be dangerous, especially so because they include structures used by 1,200 staffers at San Francisco General Hospital and students at City College’s Civic Center campus.
Of added concern, 22 years after San Francisco required that such buildings be fixed, is that the city is unable to provide an up-to-date, comprehensive list of which buildings haven’t complied with the law. This despite the fact that many of the unreinforced buildings are owned by the city itself, a Chronicle analysis of public records has found.
That raises questions about how well the city can manage its next major seismic retrofit effort, mandated upgrades to what are known as soft-story buildings, which it began enforcing last month. The program involves more than twice as many structures.
City officials view the unreinforced masonry building requirement passed in 1992 as a success — the remaining risky buildings account for only about 1 percent of the roughly 2,100 covered under that law, whose requirements are stricter than those imposed by the state for commercial or residential buildings. And they also say they’ve made great strides in tracking progress and enforcing compliance for the next round of retrofits.
“Since Loma Prieta, we’ve advanced a lot in how we think about seismic policy,” said Patrick Otellini, who has been the city’s chief resilience officer, or earthquake czar, for two years. “We’ve learned a lot about data and how we use it.”
For example, the city is compiling weekly status reports on compliance with its soft-story retrofit mandate, which covers roughly 4,800 multiunit, residential, wood-frame buildings that have sizable openings on the ground floor, such as a garage door or picture windows.
But even as the city moves decisively to enforce the new retrofit requirement, taping up red “Earthquake warning!” notices on noncompliant buildings, momentum to fix the remaining unreinforced masonry buildings appears to have slowed, sometimes because of bureaucracy or cost.
While the city has spent $10.7 billion since Loma Prieta in seismic upgrades for projects ranging from retrofitting City Hall to the ongoing construction of both a new approach to the Golden Gate Bridge and a new patient wing at San Francisco General Hospital, the remaining unreinforced brick buildings are being handled piecemeal.
Retrofits are planned for some public buildings as funding becomes available, which may be years away. Some private buildings have been partially retrofitted, like the Clay Street offices of the nonprofit Chinatown Community Development Center, but haven’t been completed because of funding or other complications. Others are waiting to be demolished.
And those delays are where the danger comes in.
The San Francisco General Hospital campus has nine buildings that have not been retrofitted. They contain offices and research centers, not hospital beds, but one houses a program that provides food to low-income women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or have children younger than 5. On a recent visit, the waiting room for that program was full of mothers and at least eight children.
It’s known that the buildings haven’t been retrofitted, but the exact level of danger is in dispute. The city’s Department of Public Health says the brick buildings, ranging from three to six stories and some dating to 1915, were built around steel frames, but the Department of Building Inspection lists them as unreinforced masonry buildings.
A separate seismic safety analysis by UCSF rated eight of the nine buildings as either poor or very poor in their ability to withstand a major earthquake. The brick building rated the highest by UCSF houses the nutrition program — but it scored only a “fair.”
“We expect after an earthquake they are going to be yellow- or red-tagged and not usable,” said Brian Strong, the city’s director of capital planning.
The city plans to start stabilizing the buildings next month as an interim step, including re-anchoring roof tiles and work to limit the hazard of bricks falling in a major shake, but a full renovation could cost at least $300 million.
City College building
Another unreinforced building open to the public is at City College’s Civic Center campus. The three-story brick building was constructed in 1910 as a public school and now holds classrooms primarily for English learners, offices and a bookstore.
The city issued an order of abatement against the community college district in 2000, saying the building’s brick parapet was unsafe, records show. But city and college officials now say the building falls outside the jurisdiction of the city’s Department of Building Inspection because it is part of a community college district regulated by the state.
The building is to be retrofitted over the next five years, said Jeff Hamilton, a spokesman for the community college district.
Unreinforced buildings owned by the city include a brick hall built in 1893 on the edge of the Mission District that weathered both the 1906 quake and Loma Prieta in 1989. It’s used by about 50 Municipal Transportation Agency workers who repair the overhead lines that power buses and light-rail vehicles.
SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose said the city is planning to relocate the crews to a new site rather than retrofit the building, but some workers at 1401 Bryant St. were unfazed by the building’s state of health.
“This building survived all the other earthquakes,” said one worker who declined to give his name because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media. “It’s built better than most.”
A city-owned art gallery just across the street from City Hall at 155 Grove St. has been closed to the public for years because it’s prone to collapse in a quake, but city staff enter the building periodically. The city isn’t sure what it’s going to do with that building and another unreinforced brick one it owns around the corner at 240 Van Ness Ave., but the two sites could be combined in a future development, City Administrator Naomi Kelly said.
Then there are privately owned buildings — at least five of them — that remained unreinforced for years as developers sought approval to replace them with larger, modern structures. Typically, before the city will issue a demolition permit, approval for the replacement must be in place; the intent is to prevent vacant lots that can attract crime and drive down property values, city planners said.
But when the proposal includes large, dense buildings, approvals can take years.
That was the case for three vacant, unreinforced brick buildings on Pine Street built during the 1910s to sell and service automobiles. One, at 1660 Pine St., was later converted to the Deovlet & Sons Furniture store. The buildings and two others on the block are to be demolished, with two of the facades incorporated into a housing development with two 13-story towers and an underground parking garage.
The block had been a silent earthquake hazard for decades until Oyster Development got approval last week to proceed and quickly started demolition.
Other unreinforced masonry buildings, like one at 974 Market St., are still waiting. The vacant former camera shop is one of four buildings to be replaced by a proposed 250-room hotel, 300 residential units and an arts center, but approvals aren’t expected until next summer, with demolition planned a year from now. That means pedestrians on the sidewalk are exposed to danger in the event of an earthquake — one only has too look at the damage to older buildings in downtown Napa during the quake there on Aug. 24 to see the hazard.
Private money and the city’s booming real estate market will eventually wipe out many of the dangerous buildings, but the civic buildings — such as those at San Francisco General — are another matter.
“We’ve been steadily tackling it,” Strong said. “As important as those buildings are, there have been so many others we’ve had to address.”
City officials say they have had to make hard choices to prioritize what buildings got retrofitted first.
“The reality is, if we tried to address all of the seismic needs of the city at one time, we physically couldn’t do it because of all the construction,” Strong said, “and we couldn’t afford it.”