Monica Almeida / The New York Times

Construction is seen near the site of the proposed Millennium Hollywood towers in Los Angeles. The project was suspended this fall pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed by opponents, who say the property might straddle an earthquake fault line and could pose safety hazards.

L.A. debates building where faults collide

Published: Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013 - 11:00 pm

The proposed Millennium towers, two skyscrapers that would soar against the Hollywood Hills, were supposed to be a powerful symbol of the campaign to transform Hollywood into a bustling urban hub.

But these days, as Los Angeles emerges from a steep economic decline, the project has instead become a symbol of something more worrisome: whether ambitious development plans can overcome the complications that come with constructing new buildings and protecting old ones in a region crisscrossed with dozens of earthquake faults.

The Millennium towers project was suspended this fall, before ground was broken, pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed by opponents citing warnings that the property might straddle a fault. At the same time, two reports, one by the University of California and a second by the Los Angeles Times, found that up to 1,500 concrete buildings built before 1975 were structurally vulnerable to collapse under the powerful force of a big earthquake.

This confluence of events means that Los Angeles is caught in the kind of emotional debate that typically takes place only in the immediate aftermath of a powerful temblor. The issues involved are the widely acknowledged deficiencies in earthquake preparation here and the obligations of government and landlords to protect old and new buildings. The last major earthquake rumbled through here in 1994.

“The whole city of Los Angeles has faults running through it,” said Mitch O’Farrell, a City Council member who represents Hollywood and voted in favor of the towers, known as the Millennium Hollywood. “The hard question is: Do we halt all development in Hollywood? Do we wait for that 11,000-year earthquake? We are going to go down a very slippery slope if we halt all construction for an earthquake fault that hasn’t been defined.”

Lucile Jones, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said that unlike San Francisco, which recently approved a plan to finance reinforcements for buildings with vulnerable first stories, Los Angeles had failed to press for the kind of building safeguards that could reduce casualties.

“When you have a big earthquake, you get a lot done – but after that, it’s hard to get traction,” Jones said. “It’s really great that we are doing this without having to kill people first.

“In 40 years, we haven’t managed to do anything about retrofitting the existing structures,” she said. “The conversation about earthquakes has always been the trade-off between seismic safety and financial considerations.”

Lawmakers are considering a number of steps, including embarking on a survey of vulnerable buildings, appointing an official in charge of earthquake preparation and examining what can be done about the slow pace of the state geologist’s mapping of earthquake faults here. The city’s new mayor, Eric Garcetti, has found himself balancing two long-conflicting constituencies: business owners worried about the cost of reinforcing old buildings, and geologists who warn of large-scale and preventable casualties.

“When you’re the mayor of Los Angeles, earthquake readiness must be a priority, and it is for me,” Garcetti said in a statement. “From the outset, my administration has been working on the full spectrum of issues, including structural engineering, emergency services and the preparedness of our residents for when the ‘Big One’ comes.”

The Millennium towers have run into trouble because they could fall within 50 feet of a fault line, which would violate the earthquake safety law that was passed after the 6.6-magnitude San Fernando Valley earthquake in 1971. The key word is “could”: The uncertainty reflects the inability of state geologists, struggling with state budget cuts, to complete maps of faults in many parts of Los Angeles, including the well-known one in Hollywood.

A coalition of homeowners filed the suit against the project, asserting that the developers knew about and were hiding the dangers of the fault.

The developers said that they had done extensive testing to make certain that the building was not on a fault and that they were prepared to do more if needed.

“They are creating an earthquake hysteria,” Philip E. Aarons, one of the Millennium developers, said of the homeowners. “All the evidence they are citing is pure conjecture. It is connecting dots that may or may not pass through a given site.”

“People have been made extraordinarily nervous and concerned,” Aarons said. “Obviously it’s an important issue. If people would feel better with more extensive testing, then we are happy to do this. We don’t want to build a building on an earthquake fault.”

The University of California, Berkeley, is almost finished with a five-year survey that identified 1,500 buildings that, given their age and concrete makeup, are considered at risk in a major earthquake. The university initially resisted calls to release the findings, which were assembled as part of a $1.6 million study financed by the National Science Foundation.

But after negotiations with the city, the university agreed to publish the survey once the research is completed, probably early next year.

“We are concerned about the list being utilized in a way that causes unfair alarm and affects property values in a way that might not be justified,” said Jack P. Moehle, a professor of engineering at the university. “We don’t want to cause public alarm.”

The Los Angeles Times, based on its own survey published in October, said that up to 1,000 unreinforced concrete buildings were vulnerable, and it projected that 50 would collapse in a strong earthquake. The article included detailed assessments of many of the buildings at risk.

The release of the lists has revived a long debate about whether the city should require building owners to pay for making sure that their buildings are safe. The cost of inspecting a building can reach $100,000; the bill for repairs can exceed the value of the building itself.

“It is always a risk-benefit analysis if you are being rational about it,” said Carol Schatz, the president of the Central City Association of Los Angeles, a business group. “What is the risk of a catastrophic earthquake, and what is the cost to mitigate that risk? Is the cost a burden that a private property should bear alone?”

Thomas H. Heaton, the director of the Earthquake Engineering Research Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, noted the long history of owners vigorously resisting any attempt by the city to force them to retrofit their buildings.

“Unfortunately, there is almost no one representing the building occupants,” he said.

Mitchell Englander, a City Council member who has been pushing for a citywide survey of at-risk buildings, said there had been resistance, “and for good reason.”

“But we have to get it done,” he said. “We can’t put it off any longer.”

As it is, at least two other projects near the Millennium site, as well as one in Century City, are in unmapped areas where there are some faults. The rough-hewn and drastically hilly streets around the towers, which would rise next to the famous Capitol Records building, are evidence of the powerful earthquakes that split the Hollywood fault in the past.

“There are a lot of faults that have been built atop in Southern California – most of these buildings were built before the faults were known,” said James F. Dolan, a professor of earth sciences at the University of Southern California. “This ends up creating a lot of thorny questions.”

The violent side-to-side or up-and-down movements that occur along the line would very likely be disastrous for any building constructed near it. “You are going to get ripped apart,” said Jones, the Geological Survey seismologist.

It has been nearly 20 years since the Northridge earthquake, which struck with a magnitude of 6.7, killing close to 60 people and causing $20billion in damage. The last major earthquake in San Francisco struck five years earlier, in 1989.

“From the cynical point of view, in our business it seems like it’s hard to get anything done unless people die,” Heaton said. “But we’d like to believe that a study providing information will motivate people to make changes without having the deaths.”

Read more articles by Adam Nagourney



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