image Architecture & Planning

City Plans Building Rating System for Older Concrete Buildings

By Kerry Morrison

December 3, 2014

Earlier this year, Mayor Eric Garcetti called for mandatory building ratings for concrete buildings. Over the course of this year, Dr. Lucy Jones, a seismologist employed by the U.S. Geological Survey, headquartered at Cal Tech, has been functioning as the Mayor’s advisor on this strategy.

In June 2014, The Rockefeller Foundation 100RC hosted a Resilience Workshop, now that the city of Los Angeles has been chosen to be one of 100 Resilient Cities. At that workshop, Dr. Jones telescoped ahead to preliminary planning around a building rating system that helps to identify the safety of commercial and residential buildings in Los Angeles.
To Dr. Jones’ credit, she has been on a listening tour this year, meeting with property and business owners to understand the practical considerations behind complying with building retrofit requirements. In these give and take sessions, she has heard that despite desires to make buildings as safe as possible, owners are often hampered by cost considerations and existing tenants and businesses. This is not an easy fix.

Dr. Jones talk

Dr. Lucy Jones has been helping the city explore resiliency in Los Angeles.

I was invited to participate on a panel on October 20 sponsored by the Structural Engineer’s Association of Southern California, entitled “Strengthening our Cities.” The panel featured an attorney, a commercial real estate broker, a risk management expert and me, speaking for property owners in general. When asked by the moderator, “what do property owners think about the city’s plans to rate the safety of concrete buildings?” I affirmed that property owners take this seriously.

However, I raised a number of questions that the city has to provide clarity on as they pursue this policy. For example, what buildings will be required to be retrofitted? Determining the structural needs of a building cannot be done with a visual inspection, and may require costly evaluation.

How does a property owner identify a reputable structural engineer to do these assessments, and what happens if the city changes the requirements down the road? Also, how does one finance these improvements (some have suggested that retrofitting concrete buildings can cost in excess of $150/sq. foot)? What does an owner do about existing lease obligations with commercial or residential tenants? (Relocation costs can be enormous.) How do nonprofit organizations finance such projects? It is hard to raise money for tangible programs, much less invisible structural evaluations or reinforcements.

Finally, over what period of time will these requirements be mandated?

It was expected that a roadmap to a building rating system was going to be announced soon, but this appears to be delayed. There is another group working on a rating system, the U.S. Resiliency Council (USRC). This group has provided a glimpse at some “work-in-progress” standards that would result in one to five-star ratings in three areas: Safety, damage, recovery. The hope, as articulated by the USRC is to “inform the public about the condition of the building they live and work in and bring market forces to bear on the seismic rehabilitation of hazardous buildings.”

Staff will continue to monitor these developments at the city and will provide information as it become available. Any questions are encouraged.

This blog is part of a series entitled “Exploring the Micro-Neighborhoods and Macro Trends” which stems from the presentation given by HPOA staff at the 2014 All Property Owners Meeting.  For the complete series, click here.

Kerry Morrison is executive director of the Hollywood Property Owners Alliance.  She serves as a Mayoral appointee to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) and blogs at www.onlyinhollywood.org.

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