Mountain View could become more earthquake-ready, after the city's Environmental Planning Commission voted unanimously last week to clear the way for seismic upgrades to aging structures at high risk of collapse.
Mountain View is home to roughly 100 to 125 multi-family residential buildings that have what's called a "soft story" design -- upper floors are held up by a structurally weak ground floor that's typically left open on one or more sides for parking and commercial uses. These buildings are vulnerable to the lateral back-and-forth movement of an earthquake and are at risk of "pancaking" if the first floor collapses, according to assistant city planner Diana Pancholi.
"When (the buildings) collapse, they do risk the lives of those who reside in them, and in the case of an earthquake, it will leave many families homeless," Pancholi said.
But when landlords interested in making safety upgrades approach the city, they hit a brick wall. That's because the city bars property owners from making "structural modifications," including seismic retrofits, to nonconforming structures or buildings with a nonconforming use -- meaning they were legal at the time but do not meet current regulations. Because the city's soft-story apartments were built several decades ago, many of them fall under this category and cannot get the quick-fix needed to improve earthquake safety.
Potential fixes for soft-story buildings include installing new interior or exterior walls, adding thick, 9-inch support columns and adding steel framing at specific locations on the ground floor. The concern is that these kinds of changes could butt up against the city's zoning regulations by increasing the floor area ratio (FAR) of the building and reducing required parking spaces.
At the Nov. 2 Environmental Planning Commission meeting, commissioners agreed that it's time to loosen the rules and allow for these seismic upgrades, and voted 7-0 to recommend that City Council amend the ordinance to allow seismic upgrades and improve public safety. The move comes after multiple property owners approached the city seeking to retrofit their buildings, but were turned down by city staff.
"As our nonconforming code exists today, it does not allow any structural modifications, even for seismic retrofits to address the situation," Pancholi said.
Assistant Community Development Director Terry Blount said that Mountain View's regulations on nonconforming buildings are "very restrictive" and some of the most conservative he has ever worked under. By making a minor amendment to the law, Blount said, property owners can make the upgrades they need to safeguard residents in the event of an earthquake.
The amended ordinance is part of a larger effort on the part of Mountain View to take stock of all of the soft-story buildings in the city, and find ways to encourage property owners to make the necessary fixes to prevent homes from pancaking in a major earthquake. The city currently has $350,000 set aside to conduct a survey of all of the city's soft story buildings, many of which are apartments. The survey will be conducted next spring, and the report will offer options for how to offer incentives -- or force -- property owners to make seismic retrofits.
Estimates from a 2006 study by San Jose State University found that the city has about 1,129 soft-story apartment units, leaving an estimated 2,823 residents at risk. The university later declined to share the addresses of the buildings with the city, and discarded the information.
Other cities in the Bay Area, including Berkeley and San Francisco, have already moved forward with mandatory retrofitting programs for soft-story buildings. Blount said he expects Mountain View will model its soft-story program on Berkeley's, in terms of informing the public about safety hazards, conducting a survey, contacting property owners and setting up a timeline for submitting permit applications and completing retrofit work.
In essence, the property owners who approached the city with requests to retrofit their buildings are trying to get ahead of the curve and fix the problem early. At the EPC meeting, commission member John Scarboro raised concerns that these early adopters might make safety upgrades that fall short of the standards of whatever soft-story seismic retrofit program the city creates. Blount said there's a specific standard set for retrofit work, and that the city's chief building official will have to sign off on the upgrades.
Taking the amendment one step further, commission member Preeti Hehmeyer suggested that the city might want to do more in terms of incentives, including waiving the permit fees. Blount said the City Council could consider ways to reduce the financial burden of retrofitting a building, but it may not be necessary. As a former city planner for Berkeley, Blount said the city was able to achieve 98 percent compliance with the soft-story program without any relief from permit costs.
The council is tentatively scheduled to consider approval of the ordinance amendments at the Nov. 22 City Council meeting.