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Soft story ordinance coming soon!

Submitted by on 1, February 20, 2009 – 7:45 amNo Comment

I’ve been so focused on being Miffed, I’ve neglected to bring you this news from Tuesday’s council meeting: that the council took a step toward approving a plan to catalogue and study “soft-story” apartment buildings in an effort to make those buildings safer in an earthquake.

The council heard an ordinance Tuesday that would allow the city to catalogue the buildings, which are typically two- to four-story apartment buildings sitting on top of a “soft story” of parking or another large, open space (think windows or retail stores) where a wall would otherwise be.

So far, city building officials have informally counted 224 soft-story buildings on the Island, Building Official Greg McFann said.

Barring a successful appeal , the city would require building owners who make the list to get structural assessments within 18 months of their listing that could cost between $5,000 and $20,000,McFann said. It would also require the building owners to post a notice that they’ve been listed on their buildings.

The council also told staff they want building owners who make the list to put emergency shutoff valves on their gas line within 30 to 60 days of being listed.

McFann said retrofit work could cost between $9,000 and $28,000 per unit (and if you’re looking, a whole bunch of contractors left their cards andflyers outside the council chambers). The retrofit work is not required by this ordinance, though a second ordinance that would require the work to be done could come to the council in another two years.

City officials are undertaking the effort in an effort to avoid apartment building collapses like the ones that occurred during the 1989Loma Prieta and 1994 Northridge quakes. McFann said there’s a 62 percent chance of a major quake on the Hayward fault in the next 30 years, and that
a big Hayward temblor could render 7,600 housing units uninhabitable – 4,500 of them in the Island’s soft story buildings.

The ordinance is based on a similar one in Berkeley. Fremont also has a soft story ordinance and San Francisco is working on one. A 2005 state law allowed cities to create the ordinances.

Some folks supported the plan, saying it’s a necessary step toward making residents of these buildings safe when that schedule major quake on the Hayward fault hits. And they praised city officials for their collaborative approach in creating the ordinance.

“The Planning and Building Department has crafted an ordinance that fulfills the city’s public safety function while being tailored to minimize the costs and other unnecessary burdens on property owners,” the Alameda Association of Realtors’ local government relations chair, RobPlatt, wrote in a letter to the council supporting the ordinance.

But others said they’re worried they won’t be able to afford the cost of studying and retrofitting their buildings.

“This ordinance would create a massive hardship which will disproportionately affect the lowest income homeowners on the island, especially first-timehomebuyers and seniors,” said Sandy Garcia, who said she fears the condominium she and her husband own could be placed on the list.

McFann said the city is looking for money to help pay for retrofit work.

The council is expected to vote on the plan on March 3.

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