Seismic safety worries city

Anthony Martinez/Staff

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Igor Tregub called a soft-story building home when he was a student at UC Berkeley.

“Soft stories disproportionately affect students,” said Tregub, a commissioner on the city’s Housing Advisory Commission and Zoning Adjustments Board.

More than seven years ago, Berkeley enacted the Soft Story Ordinance to mitigate the dangers of buildings with structurally unsupportive ground levels. Currently, Tregub is planning his third seismic compliance day of action on March 20 to inform tenants about these dangers.

Hundreds of Berkeley properties meet the city’s soft-story definition — a wood-frame structure with five or more units and a ground level containing large openings like storefronts, garages or tuck-under parking.

Jennifer Strauss, external relations officer at the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, compared soft-story buildings to houses on stilts.

“The large open spaces on the ground floor that are unreinforced cannot withstand lateral forces,” Strauss said. “When the ground shakes back and forth, they end up collapsing.”

The Bay Area has a 63 percent probability of a magnitude 6.7 or greater quake striking the Bay Area between 2007 and 2036, according to 2008 forecast from the United States Geological Survey. The Hayward Fault, which runs directly through Memorial Stadium’s end zones, is most likely to produce the damaging quake.

Although 104 buildings have been voluntarily retrofitted to better withstand earthquakes, 168 remain on the city’s inventory of soft-story buildings, according to Christina Franco, an office specialist at the city’s Planning and Development Department.

Phase one of the ordinance required building owners to notify residents of seismic hazards with warning signs and letters and to submit an engineer’s analysis of potential structural improvements. It does not, however, mandate retrofits — this was to be phase two.

“There have been delays because of bureaucracy,” said Rent Stabilization Board Commissioner Jesse Townley. “There’s always something shinier and more current to deal with.”

Currently, the Rent Stabilization Board has drafted the second phase, but the city needs to conduct more outreach to building owners before it can be put to a vote, said Berkeley City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin.

“It’s frustrating because this is a very important issue to people in our community,” Arreguin said. “Tenants’ lives are at risk.”

Although Afsaneh Mortazavi, a junior at UC Berkeley, is aware that her building is a soft story, it has not discouraged her from living there.

“It probably should bother me more than it does,” Mortazavi said.

She jokingly doubted the usefulness of an earthquake-preparedness kit in her situation.

“We live in a soft-story building, so it won’t matter because we’ll be crushed anyway,” Mortazavi said.  “Maybe if we’re standing next to the water, we can drink it when we’re under the rubble.”

Other tenants, however, remain uninformed of their building’s dangers. Last year, Tregub and a team conducted a walking tour of select soft-story properties and found seven of the 15 buildings inspected did not appear to have posted warning signs.

Nevertheless, Tregub hopes Berkeley will take more concrete action toward phase two — and soon.

“When we started this, it was an urgent issue, and since then, it has become an even more urgent issue,” Tregub said. “It would be terrible for the city to have blood on its hands if the unthinkable were to happen and we had not done our due diligence to prepare.”

Contact Mitchell Handler at [email protected].