Palo Alto looks to firm up rules for shaky buildings

City prepares for new assessment of seismically vulnerable structures

When the Big One hits and the earth starts to rumble, you probably don't want to find yourself in the fitting room of Nordstrom's or Macy's in the Stanford Shopping Center.

If you're lucky, you won't be watching a movie at Palo Alto Square, dining at MacArthur Park or hanging out at the Palantir cafeteria at 542 High St.

These five structures are among 89 that the city deemed in 1986 to be seismically vulnerable. They are also among 22 whose owners to this day have done nothing to change that fact, according to a recent city assessment. The list of buildings that have not been upgraded also includes the Cardinal Hotel at 231 Hamilton Ave. and the Palo Alto Woman's Club at 475 Homer St.

The number of buildings in Palo Alto deemed vulnerable is generally assumed to be much higher than the 22 identified in the recent status report, though an exact number has been hard to peg. Ken Dueker, director of the city's Office of Emergency Services, told the City Council last year that the city has 22 unreinforced masonry buildings, which by definition are not braced by reinforcing beams. There are also about 124 "soft story" structures -- multistory buildings such as garages or large retail stores in which one or more floors are dominated by large open spaces with no shear walls.

Both designs are considered seismically shaky. In his update to the council in September, Dueker observed that soft-story buildings "tend to collapse catastrophically and it looks like there never was a garage under there to begin with."

But what should the city do about these buildings? That's the question that the council is preparing to tackle in the coming months, as it moves along with its first major assessment of seismically vulnerable structures since the late 1980s. On Aug. 18, the City Council is expected to approve a $129,432 contract with the firm Rutherford + Chekene to come up with a new inventory of the city's potentially hazardous structures. The council will then consider ways to get the building owners to make the needed fixes.

The new assessment is expected to differ drastically from the one conducted in 1986. At that time, the survey was limited to three categories of buildings: ones constructed of unreinforced masonry, ones built before 1935 and containing 100 or more occupants, and ones that were built before Aug. 1, 1976 and contain 300 or more occupants. Under a law the council adopted in 1986, owners of the buildings on the list had to provide the city with an engineering analysis. Retrofitting, however, was optional, and not every building owner took that option. Of the 89 buildings in the three categories, 39 have been strengthened, 21 have been demolished, four were proposed for demolition and one had its unreinforced wall removed.

The new survey will be broader in scope and will include buildings with tilt-up construction, non-ductile concrete and steel-moment-resisting frame -- typologies that were not reviewed in 1986 but that are now recognized as vulnerable. It will focus on multifamily, commercial and industrial buildings of the city. And once it's in place, it will set the stage for what many expect to be a difficult community conversation as the council considers ways to ensure compliance.

The topic of earthquake safety returned to the city's spotlight last year, when staff completed what is known as a Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA) report, which summarizes some of the top threats facing Palo Alto. Perhaps not surprisingly, given Palo Alto's proximity to both the San Andreas and Hayward faults, earthquakes ranked at the top of the "natural disaster category."

The report notes that past land-use decisions in Palo Alto "have not always taken hazards into consideration."

"Moreover, older buildings and infrastructure reflect the construction and engineering standards of their era, which in most cases fall short of current standards for seismic safety," the threat assessment states. "As a result, a portion of the city, including 130 soft-story structures, would be at some risk in the event of a major earthquake."

While the greatest hazards are associated with fault rupture and ground shaking, the report notes, other potential threats include liquefaction east of U.S. Highway 101; landslides in the foothills; and seismically induced flooding because of possible dam failure at Felt Lake and Searsville Lake, as well as potential levee failure near the San Francisco Bay.

In response to this threat report, the council directed staff and its Policy and Services Committee to consider ways to identify vulnerable structures, review best practices from other communities and consider current or pending state legislation relating to soft-story buildings and other seismically deficient structures. In December, the committee unanimously endorsed staff's proposal to commission a new assessment that would include the additional typologies of potentially vulnerable buildings.

Greg Schmid and Greg Scharff, who served on the committee last year, both expressed enthusiasm for the new effort to make the community seismically safer.

Scharff called the effort to upgrade safety standards a "life safety" issue and recalled his experience during the 6.6-magnitude quake that hit Los Angeles in February 1971.

"I remember my bed just flying across the room," Scharff said during the committee's Dec. 9 discussion. "That's how I woke up -- the bed was flying across the room.

"It's one thing for the bed to fly; it's another for the building to come pancaking down like that," he added, slapping his hand down.

Though the effort to update the inventory is still in the early phase, the council faces the likely contentious consideration of whether retrofits should be voluntary or mandatory.

"There will be some difficult decision as the council and the committee of the council and the community evaluate the need to reduce risk to property and life against the high cost of retrofitting buildings," Assistant Planning Director Jonathan Lait told the committee during the December meeting. "It can be significant in many instances."

City Manager James Keene, who oversaw Berkeley's seismic upgrades of its public building during his stint as the city manager there, concurred with Lait's assessment.

"It's potentially a big deal," Keene said. "We have to be clear about that."

Scharff said he would favor measures that would make compliance mandatory rather than optional, despite the high cost of retrofitting some of the buildings on the list. But he said he believes the city should focus on large residential and commercial structures over smaller retail buildings, noting that businesses like Mills Florist at 233 University Ave. and SOS Grocery at 949 Emerson St. could struggle to cover the cost of a major retrofit.

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3 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto Resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 14, 2015 at 4:16 pm

It should be mandatory. If optional worked, all the buildings would have been retrofitted by now. It could not be more obvious than that. It's unfortunate about small retail buildings, but why should the business customers and minimum wage employees die in an earthquake because the landlord can't afford a retrofit?

2 people like this
Posted by @Palo Alto Resident
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 14, 2015 at 4:24 pm

You're right, there should be some way to rectify this situation. Personally, I'm surprised this situation even exists, considering the history of earthquakes in this area...

2 people like this
Posted by palo alto parent
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 15, 2015 at 11:53 am

Nordstrom just did a major remodel. The Stanford Mall is undergoing a major remodel, update and new buildings. Why weren't both stores required to update their buildings seismically?

3 people like this
Posted by Sandra Boxman
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Aug 15, 2015 at 1:56 pm

So glad we are doing this. Get ready for a shakeup before it happens unlike Napa. Preparedness is quite the "hobby" for me a CERT trained! I make sure my family has an earthquake hit in everyone room and car, and that my husband keeps a kit in his office. Some kits we make ourselves but we also have purchased some Preppi kits, which are hands down the best 3-day earthquake preparedness kits on the market. Locally made and extremely high quality. I think it's called the Prepster. Anyways good stuff... Web Link

2 people like this
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 15, 2015 at 2:46 pm

Marie is a registered user.

I'm all for encouraging owners to upgrade their buildings to current code, particularly the earthquake code. However, I hope the incentives offered to upgrade buildings do not include additional density without adequate parking. If I remember correctly, in the past, companies were able to reduce their required parking as an incentive to upgrade buildings to code. I hope that has been reversed, and never allowed again.

4 people like this
Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 16, 2015 at 3:25 pm

SteveU is a registered user.

All that should be required is a standardized Plaque at all public entrances.

Go visit the Clocktower in Benicia. It has a not meeting current Earthquake standards warning Plaque.
It has stood since 1859

Occupants need to make their own choices.
Only where there is significant chance that the structure will cause serious injury to NON-occupants, should mandatory methods be employed.

Upgrades are just another builder/PA Planning profit center.

4 people like this
Posted by moi
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 17, 2015 at 11:14 am

The House of Foam need not worry.

They can just dive under all the backstock when the shaking starts.

Like this comment
Posted by Palo Alto Parent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 17, 2015 at 11:29 am

Someone brought up the city of Benecia as an example. Let's look at that policy Web Link Inspection and notification and plaques is all it does for all buildings in Benecia. The old way of doing things just isn't good enough, it doesn't work.

Like this comment
Posted by maguro_01
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 17, 2015 at 1:56 pm

A Primary danger in the Big One is fire, as the water pressure and electricity would be gone and there might be too many fires to fight simultaneously anyway.

Buildings that simply collapse would be a special danger in starting fires, especially if they have gas service, which they shouldn't. Presumably all gas service requires an automatic shutoff valve if the pressure goes to zero at the user's side (right?).

Anyway, it is unreasonable to discuss major earthquakes without discussing fires. For most buildings around here if a big quake breaks up the wallboard and plaster, they are just particle board and 2X4's.

Like this comment
Posted by Stephen
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 17, 2015 at 5:15 pm

Re the comment concerning the Benecia Clock Tower: Unfortunately when a structure collapses during an earthquake, it can fall onto other buildings. For example, during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, one wall of the Bookshop Santa Cruz fell onto the adjoining Santa Cruz Roasting company building, killing two people there.

Like this comment
Posted by Esther
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 17, 2015 at 7:10 pm

As maguro-01 mentioned, fires are the disaster after the disaster. Automatic gas shut-off valves are useful. Useful also is getting Community Emergency Response Team training. Even if you never volunteer you feel better able to take care of your family when you learn how to do some basic actions that can pay big dividends in a disaster.

And as Sandra said, having kits is an important part of being prepared. With work, kids and many other commitments, some neighbors feel guilty that it's one more thing they haven't done. That is why another of our Palo Alto CERTs created a website Web Link that helps a family of four get a kit for about $300 in less than 30 minutes. If this is you please take a look at the website.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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