Proposal to require seismic upgrades after small earthquakes moves to Board of Supervisors

Buildings that suffer damage from small earthquakes would have to be upgraded to withstand stronger temblors under legislation that advanced Monday.

The legislation is the latest effort by San Francisco officials to better prepare The City for a major earthquake. It is another recommendation from the decadelong Community Action Plan for Seismic Safety study. That study is San Francisco’s blueprint for undergoing a major earthquake with less death and destruction.

On Monday, the Board of Supervisors Land Use and Economic Development Committee approved legislation that would require buildings that sustain damage during smaller-sized earthquakes to make seismic improvements.

“This is a very important item, but it is a very simple item,” said Patrick Otellini, The City’s earthquake czar.  

“Right now, if you basically repair this building for the code today, you wouldn’t really be repairing it,” Otellini said after the vote. “You basically would be putting it back to its normal condition, which you know was a substandard structure.”

It’s unclear how many buildings would sustain significant damage in a minor earthquake.

“We won’t see a substantial amount of these buildings,” Otellini said. “But it’s the poorly built buildings where there could be decay over time because of the materials or bad construction.”

It would be up to city building inspectors to determine the necessary work following the damage. Building owners would be required to submit permits within a year after an earthquake.

“Repair and retrofitting following moderate, less-intense earthquakes make up an important strategy to improve San Francisco’s resilience to more intense earthquakes,” the report said.

The City hopes to minimize the damage forecast from a major earthquake. For example, the report predicted that a 7.2-magnitude earthquake on the San Andreas fault would result in 300 fatalities, 7,000 injuries, 27,000 condemned buildings, 2,700 buildings destroyed by fire, 85,000 housing units lost and up to $30 billion in property damage.

The full board is expected to approve the legislation next Tuesday. But lively debate is expected March 18, when one of the study’s most controversial recommendations goes before the committee. That legislation would require the owners of vulnerable “soft-story” buildings to make seismic upgrades. It concerns tenant advocates since it would allow landlords to pass through 100 percent of the retrofitting costs to tenants under existing rental laws for capital improvements.

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