Berkeley announces retrofittings for more than half of city’s soft-story buildings

Jaime Paredes Talavera/File

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The city announced Friday that more than half of Berkeley’s soft-story buildings have been renovated to increase resilience to earthquakes.

Soft, weak or open-front buildings are multiple-story wood-frame buildings with large windows, garage doors or open space on the first floor that make them especially vulnerable to earthquake damage because of a weaker lateral load resisting system.

A city ordinance in 2005 required soft-story building owners to submit reports of their building’s structural ability to resist earthquake impacts and post signs indicating to tenants that the buildings were unsafe, leading to the seismic retrofitting of 112 properties.

“Berkeley happens to be on the forefront of this issue with how aggressively the city has tried to correct the issue,” said Matthai Chakko, spokesperson for the city of Berkeley. “We want to be sure that we’re protecting as many residents as possible and making sure the city is safe.”

As of Jan. 4, 2014, the city of Berkeley requires by law that owners of soft-story buildings built before 1978 with five or more residential units to retrofit their buildings.

There are currently 124 of the 321 buildings from the original inventory of soft-story buildings remaining to be retrofitted as of Friday. Property owners must apply for a building permit by the end of 2016 and complete work within two years of submitting their permit application.

“People for years now have seen this as a priority and taken action,” Chakko said. “Property owners have been very committed to making their buildings safer.”

According to city documents, there is no “one-size-fits-all” standard for retrofitting soft-story buildings. Owners can request a hardship exception and a one-year extension of the deadline if they cannot afford to retrofit their soft, weak or open-front property.

To help fund the seismic retrofitting, the city of Berkeley offers a transfer tax rebate to new building owners or single-family homeowners, as well as support from the Property-Assessed Clean Energy program.

Seismologists expect a major earthquake from the Hayward fault line, which runs along the Berkeley hills across campus, to occur about every 140 years. The last large earthquake along the fault was in 1868 — 147 years ago.

“We don’t know when it will happen, but it could happen anytime,” said Peggy Hellweg, operations manager at the UC Berkeley Seismological Laboratory. “I would not be surprised if it happened tomorrow.”

UC Berkeley city and regional planning graduate student Geoff Boeing said Berkeley’s efforts to increase property resilience will allow the city to recover quickly after an earthquake, which is especially relevant to low-income families.

“The quicker we’re able to return our cities built environment to pre-earthquake conditions, the quicker it is that we can have our economy functioning the way that it was before,” Boeing said. “It’s hard to return to those communities when rental housing stock is destroyed.”

Contact Amelia Mineiro at [email protected].