City property owners may be required to retrofit seismically unsafe buildings

Anthony Martinez/File
An amended ordinance would require owners of soft-story buildings, such as this one, to submit plans to retrofit them.

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A number of Berkeley property owners may be required to retrofit residential buildings that have been deemed seismically unsafe.

At its meeting Tuesday night, Berkeley City Council discussed an amended ordinance that would require owners of soft, weak or open-front buildings with five or more residential units to not only inform tenants that the buildings are earthquake-unsafe but also to submit plans to retrofit their buildings to the city by January 2017. Soft-story buildings are defined as wood-framed structures with unenclosed ground floors, such as buildings with tucked-under, open-air parking.

If the second reading is approved at the next City Council meeting Dec. 3, the new requirements would be implemented 30 days later, shortly after Jan. 1.

“We know an earthquake is going to happen sometime within next 20 or 30 years,” said Councilmember Jesse Arreguin. “The question is: Are we ready for it?”

The city’s 158 soft-story buildings, which comprise more than 1,600 residential units, would need to be retrofitted if the ordinance is passed. Many of these buildings are inhabited by students, as many of these properties border the south side of campus, said Igor Tregub of the Berkeley Housing Advisory Commission.

“It’s a really critical life-safety issue,” he said. “I’m really pleased … This is a monumental step in moving forward on this.”

In 2005, the council passed the Soft Story Ordinance, which established the first phase of the Soft Story Program. This created a city inventory of soft-story buildings in Berkeley and required the owners of these buildings to notify their tenants and post signs about the buildings’ soft-story status.

Several property owners, however, voiced concerns about the financial and logistical problems the ordinance will bring.

Due to retrofitting, many parking spaces would likely be displaced, leaving insufficient parking for workers and residents. Property owners are also worried about the costs of retrofitting, which, as of now, would be covered either in full by the owners or partly by the tenants through an increase in rent.

“Everyone is very interested in strengthening buildings for health and safety and to make sure the properties are sound,” said Jon Vicars, vice president of the Berkeley Property Owners Association. “(But) it’s expensive to retrofit.”

Retrofitting a soft-story building can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 per unit, according to a document from the city’s planning and development department.

Arreguin and Tregub, however, have both said they intend to explore ways to help property owners with funding if the amended ordinance is passed.

“We’ve been working on this for seven years,” Arreguin said. “We don’t want to create roadblocks — we want (owners) to complete retrofits as soon as possible.”

Alison Fu covers city news. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @alisonfu_.