Santa Monica to vote on next step of earthquake retrofitting plan

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Tuesday evening, the Santa Monica City Council is set to vote on the next step in a plan to improve the seismic safety of its buildings.

Officials with the Department of Planning and Community Development will ask the council to approve a contract with California based Degenkolb Engineers. The firm would then be paid roughly $90,000 to help create a list vulnerable buildings in the area.

Earlier this year, Santa Monica announced plans to develop such a list and eventually mandate that buildings on it undergo earthquake retrofitting.

Related: Tenants may pay for earthquake retrofitting under new proposal

Degenkolb would be asked to identify certain types of concrete and steel frame buildings.

Santa Monica Building Officer Ron Takiguchi says Degenkolb stood out amongst a list of potential partners because they have a history of working with concrete structures.

He also says they also offered the best approach to identifying vulnerable buildings, a method that involves looking for them by "literally walking the streets of Santa Monica in the area we perceive to have these types of buildings."

In addition to creating the list, Takiguchi says the city is working with the Structural Engineers Association of California to come up with standards for retrofits.

Loyola Law professor John Nockleby says establishing such standards would ultimately help protect building owners from being sued after a disaster, as long as they followed them.

"Right now we have somewhat amorphous state standard where a building owner could be liable but you don’t really know," Nockleby said. "Under a definitive standard... you know what you have to do".

However, setting standards could also potentially increase a building owner's risk of liability if a quake occurs before they finish retrofitting, says Bay Area attorney Mark White.

He cites a case in Paso Robles where the city established seismic safety standards and gave building owners a time frame in which to adhere to them.

During that window, in December of 2003, a magnitude 6.5 quake stuck the region and one building collapsed killing two people. A jury awarded the families of the victims nearly $2 million claiming the owners should have retrofitted the structure sooner.

White says this set a precedent that owners could still be found responsible even if their building was in line with current safety standards and in the process of adhering to new ones.

"It's a seminal case," he noted.

If the Santa Monica City Council approves the Degenkolb contract, the firm would have around two months to identify vulnerable buildings. Takiguchi says the preliminary list of at-risk buildings could be ready by late summer.

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