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How Many San Diego Buildings Don't Meet Earthquake Codes?

How Many San Diego Buildings Don't Meet Earthquake Codes?
More than 100 buildings in San Diego do not meet earthquake codes. We'll find out where some of those buildings are.

ALISON ST JOHN (Host): I’m Alison St John, sitting in for Gloria Penner as host of the Editors Roundtable this morning here on KPBS. Today, we’re talking about the shaking that seems to be getting closer and closer to San Diego and the buildings in the city that don’t meet earthquake safety codes. Also, the legal and political battle over immigration is gaining momentum now that the federal Department of Justice has filed suit against the state of Arizona. We’ll see how the escalating tension over how to enforce federal immigration laws plays out in San Diego. And the homeless population is growing and changing. Is the public losing patience or sympathy? The City of San Diego is on the verge of making some important policy decisions about that and we’ll talk them over. So joining me at the roundtable this morning are Alisa Joyce Barba, western bureau chief for National Public Radio. Great to have you with us, Alisa.

ALISA JOYCE BARBA (Western Bureau Chief, National Public Radio): Good morning, Alison. Good to be here.

ST JOHN: And JW August, news director for Channel 10 News.


JW AUGUST (Managing Editor, KGTV 10News): Managing editor. My news director wouldn’t like that.

ST JOHN: I beg your pardon. Managing director (sic) for Channel 10 News, out and about in town a lot.

AUGUST: Nice to see you, JW.

ST JOHN: Nice to see you, JW. And David Rolland, editor of San Diego CityBeat. Great that you’re here, David.

DAVID ROLLAND (Editor, San Diego CityBeat): It’s great to be here.


ST JOHN: Glad you could come.

ROLLAND: Thanks.

ST JOHN: So let’s start off with the rattling that’s been going on here in San Diego. We’ve been rattled with aftershocks from that Easter earthquake near Mexicali for weeks but the jolt that hit San Diego this morning was a bit closer to home. It was on the San Jacinto fault line, for one thing, which is closer than the San Andreas fault and runs through more urban areas. Scientists have no way of knowing if it’s an indication of bigger quakes to come but they do say the pressure on the fault lines surrounding San Diego are shifting. So, JW, Channel 10 has undertaken a very timely piece of research to find out which buildings in the city of San Diego still don’t meet earthquake codes. What did you find?

AUGUST: Well, let me first preface it by saying that the only – we did this story because of video coming back from Calexico where we saw masonry buildings and pieces of buildings collapsed then we started to think, well, what about the masonry buildings here, you know, buildings primarily made of masonry block and things like that. And then we discovered something called the URM Code, which was, you know, unreinforced masonry buildings. Then we looked at a website the city had that was allegedly reporting the latest news and we saw that some of the stuff – it hadn’t been updated in about 3 years. And from there, we began to look deeper and deeper and we found that there was over 100 buildings that were not – have not been reinforced as required by state law, and has been for some time. The deadline was actually 4 years ago to have all the reinforcement done. Why is that important? Because masonry buildings are built where the roofs aren’t attached. The sides of the – they’re not all one single structure. So in a earthquake, the stuff starts falling off. It’ll kill people. So this code was enacted to not so much make the building stronger so it’d survive it but for people to get the heck out of the building.

ST JOHN: So you found out from the City. Was it hard to find out what the state…

AUGUST: Well, at first…

ST JOHN: …of those are?

AUGUST: Well, it was a little foot-dragging by Code Compliance. They were, you know, as always, any agency’s a little uncomfortable if you’re going someplace they don’t want you to be going. But in time they were very forthcoming and, as I was saying, today before we went on the air, Code Compliance’s staff’s been cut back. They’re like one-armed paperhangers, and trying to keep up with things. And this is something that slipped through the cracks, which I don’t think should slip through the cracks. I’m not all about running, yelling ‘fire’ in the theatre but these buildings should be brought up to code.

ST JOHN: Yeah, slipped through the cracks is a good term to use in this context. So what kind of buildings did you find that still are not up to code in San Diego?

AUGUST: Every type of building you can imagine. Apartment buildings, restaurants, retail stores, and…

ROLLAND: The County Administration Building.

AUGUST: Yeah, that was one very interesting one.

ST JOHN: The City of San Diego’s City Hall is not on the list I know…

AUGUST: No, no.

ST JOHN: …because I often wonder about that one but…

AUGUST: Yeah. No, it’s not on the list.

ST JOHN: Okay.

AUGUST: And if you can imagine, it’s really – the majority of them is a swath going from the Gaslamp and sweeping up Bankers Hill and then they’re scattered throughout other areas of the city but that’s the main concentration of these buildings, most of them built before 1939.

ST JOHN: And does the code apply equally to privately owned and publicly owned buildings?

AUGUST: Yes, it does. A lot – Code Compliance can’t do anything about state and federal owned buildings but they fall within the city area and there’s 17 buildings that are – they have no authority over. There was 36 buildings that haven’t even bothered replying to notes from the Code Compliance and 106 – no, 106 are considered in compliance but in compliance means simply you pulled the permit 4 years ago. These permits last 4 years. They now have to have 106 buildings come into compliance this year.

ST JOHN: I noticed there were some on Sixth Avenue, some on Goldfinch, some on El Cajon Boulevard, University, quite a few on Newport Avenue and Old Town, I believe.

AUGUST: Yeah. I’m just looking at my cheat’em chart here where I’m looking at all – Commercial Street, 3500 block of El Cajon, 1800 block of Adams and on and on and on. They’re scattered all over the place. Those old, lovely masonry buildings with the nice faces, facades on them, those are – that’s what we’re talking about. What made some people angry – have you ever seen the Arcade building down in La Jolla? It’s kind of a – that long time building down there, a bunch of stores within a small like Hispanic shop – not Hispanic, Spanish shopping center.

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

AUGUST: It’s been there forever. He got his notice to upgrade and he did it. So he paid – the owner of that building paid a quarter of a million dollars to upgrade, and he was – We interviewed him in the story and he was ticked because, well, wait a minute, I did what I was supposed to do, what about these other people? How come they haven’t done that?

ST JOHN: Did you go to any particular buildings to find out – of the buildings that are not up to code, to find out what their reasons are?

AUGUST: Yes, we talked to different owners and they weren’t happy to hear from us. They – One gentleman said I’m working on it and slammed the phone down. That’s the one I remember.

ST JOHN: How about the County Administration Building?

AUGUST: That’s a different story and that’s your typical – it’s actually kind of funny if you’ve been doing this for awhile because how did the county building get in the city’s list of buildings not in compliance? The City was embarrassed when they realized it was on the list and the County was no comment, we’re not talking about it, our building’s safe. They were doing the typical we don’t want to talk about it. Instead of saying, oh, maybe we ought to check it out, it was we don’t want to talk about it. No comment, no comment, no comment.

ST JOHN: I mean, the County Administration Building, for one, just is one that we can kind of visualize. It looks so solid, doesn’t it? But, in fact, is there evidence that…

AUGUST: It was state of the art when it was built back in ’36, I believe, 1936. It’s 5 separate buildings held together. But if you look at the façade on the thing, you can see the eagles and all the possible things that can – tumbling down. And you go in the interior of the building and you can see, too, there are issues.

ROLLAND: Yeah, this is – I think this is an important story and I think JW already mentioned the fact that Code Compliance at the City is operating with not quite an adequate budget. And I think that’s what I – that’s part of what I take from this story is that, you know, we’ve had several rounds of budget cuts it seems like every year. Every six months almost, the City is having to trim millions and – tens of millions of dollars from its budget. And this is one of those things that people don’t see. You know, people see potholes that aren’t getting filled, and they see, you know, closures of library hours and park maintenance that’s not kept up and that sort of thing, but this is something that is going on in the, you know, inner bowels of city hall that people don’t see. Now, the only people that are seeing this are the people that are not under enforcement because the City just simply doesn’t have the people power in order to do it. But I think there’s also a problem of building owners. The building owners are not all just absolutely filthy rich people. I think probably a lot of what’s going on—and I don’t know, this is just my speculation—a lot of what’s going on is that they simply don’t have the money. This is – Retrofitting a building is expensive.

ST JOHN: I was going to ask, in fact, whether you know how much it would cost.

AUGUST: Well, the Arcade in La Jolla, the owner told us it was a quarter of a million dollars.

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

AUGUST: And it’s not cheap. And I agree, not everybody’s got money. They’re not everybody there got deep pockets but there are some people that do have money.

ST JOHN: Alisa.

BARBA: And I think that, you know, if the Code Compliance people aren’t out there, you know, and knocking you upside the head and saying you got to do this right now, then you’re just going to put it off. And it’s also the typical thing. We haven’t had a major, you know, knock on wood, we haven’t had a major earthquake in San Diego for—I’ve lived here for 20 years—for as long as I’ve lived here so everybody, you know, you cross your fingers, you, you know, cut the Code Compliance Department and you put off your retrofit because nobody’s making you do it and you hope for the best.

ST JOHN: It’s interesting that you at Channel 10 started up this investigation before this latest earthquake but do you think that the earthquake that happened this week on Wednesday should cause us to reevaluate our priorities along this front?

AUGUST: Well, after we talked to Code Compliance, they said they’d begun initiating hearings, especially the people that won’t even respond to their request to come up to code. So…

BARBA: Well, and I think this is a – what you guys have done in your investigation, it’s the, you know, again, it’s a testimony to what we need to do as local journalists. We need to look at – hold people’s feet to the fire and make sure this kind of stuff is filled out, and then I think – I’m sure there will be action as a result of this. It’s a good thing.

ROLLAND: JW, do you know if there are – What sort of grant programs, you know, just like the federal government or the state have programs to help property owners do this kind of work?

AUGUST: You know, I don’t know. That’s a good question. I imagine the Housing Commission should be able to step – I mean, they’ve – Didn’t they get a bunch of money thrown at them?

ST JOHN: Well, they have a lot of responsibilities being thrown at them, too.

AUGUST: Oh, yes, they do, too. Yeah.

ST JOHN: And we’ll talk about that in a…

ROLLAND: Yeah, and I think they’ve got a big umbrella for all the money that’s constantly being thrown at them to, you know…

AUGUST: I don’t…

ROLLAND: …guard them from being hurt by it.

ST JOHN: Let me just ask you, JW, I mean, the City of San Diego is where you were doing this investigation but does every city in the county have a different set of codes? I mean, is everybody…

AUGUST: Don’t know. I was so focused on the city…

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

AUGUST: …I was just – And it was quite – It took a while to turn it and we wanted to turn it fairly quickly. So…

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

AUGUST: …I haven’t looked. There may be other stories out there about Oceanside. The whole state is – San Diego area is one of the three areas that fit within this URM Law, the others are San Francisco and Los Angeles, that are supposed to have a program to address this issue. But San Diego came onboard – First was LA and San Francisco, then 1994 San Diego – or ’97 San Diego came onboard and they have to meet these guidelines. They’ve got to determine how many buildings are like this, develop a plan to handle it, and then have a follow-up program.

ROLLAND: JW, can I ask you a question? Did this – did the law that mandates this work come as a result of the Loma Prieta earthquake, do you know? Because I know they – I watched your broadcast last night and you showed some pretty harrowing images, which we all remember from that quake…

AUGUST: Right.

ROLLAND: …in 1989 where there was tremendous damage and, you know, lots of people killed and…

AUGUST: Right. Actually, an element of the law – the law was actually on the books before that but there is an element which we saw violations of in our story but we haven’t reported on it. It’s basically, during that earthquake a young lady died. Uh, I had her name here. Jenny – Jenny Merrick (sp). She was hit by some debris coming out of a building while she was in the building. And it created a law that simply said if your building’s not up to code, you got to post one of those signs like they do for pregnant ladies around smoking and microwave, all these…

BARBA: Don’t walk in my building during an earthquake.

AUGUST: Right. Well, I know it…

BARBA: Or at least…

AUGUST: …does seem silly but, I mean…

ST JOHN: I would…

AUGUST: …I would like to know if I was in a apartment building that my building does not meet code compliance.

BARBA: Yeah, right.

ST JOHN: And, JW, I wonder if that would affect any kind of potential liability afterwards. If you put a warning up then to some degree the person is taking some liability from deciding to walk in…

AUGUST: Yeah. Absolutely.

ST JOHN: …if there’s a warning there.

AUGUST: Yeah, I would think so but that – I didn’t see any signs like that. I went into about 10 buildings myself and I’m saying where are these obvious signs. I wasn’t seeing them.

BARBA: Because those signs would also broadcast the fact that they are not up to code compliance which they are supposed to be as of 4 years ago, so it seems like it would create a lot more liability.

ST JOHN: Interesting because…

AUGUST: And that was a law that was passed in this girl’s name and it’s basically been ignored.

ST JOHN: Well, it does seem like, you know, for those people who are paying attention to which fault lines these quakes are on, this last quake is on a fault line that is a good deal closer and, you know, we tend to make light of the fact that here in San Diego the earth shakes and then we go back to work. But what you’re really addressing here, I think, is that, you know, maybe we all start thinking a little more carefully about the buildings that we walk into…

AUGUST: Umm-hmm.

ST JOHN: …since the earth is realigning in this area.

AUGUST: If we could all tell when there’d be a disaster, the Red Cross’d be ready all the time, I think.

ST JOHN: We have a call on the line. Thanks very much for calling us. Did you get affected by the earthquake, Jonathan?

JONATHAN (Caller, Normal Heights): Well, we certainly felt it. I mean, I’ve lived in San Diego all my life and the Easter day quake was, by far, the strongest earthquake I’ve ever felt living here for almost 60 years.


JONATHAN: The one on, what was it, Thursday…

ST JOHN: Wednesday.

JONATHAN: …was a sharp crack but, I mean, it lasted maybe 10 seconds as opposed to the Easter day which was probably close to 45 seconds, I think.

ST JOHN: And you were in Normal Heights, Jon.

JONATHAN: Correct. I have three questions, I guess. One is, I understand, I remember the County Administration center tower portion of the building was closed for several years about, oh, 7, 8, 9 years ago for what I thought was earthquake retrofitting. So I’m curious as to whether it actually was strengthened against an earthquake. Second, I’d like to know from Mr. August if there’s a differentiation here between some buildings that would have superficial damage, i.e. a cornice falling off perhaps in a quake, and those that actually do require retrofitting from the inside out because they are unreinforced masonry that don’t have the steel reinforcing bars within the brick or…

ST JOHN: Thanks for those questions.

JONATHAN: …or comment. And then the third…

ST JOHN: Okay.

JONATHAN: …real quick is, it’s not just unreinforced masonry. UCSD Medical Center, for many years, was on the list of the state and they finally have redone the hospital in Hillcrest. So it’s not always just masonry buildings. There are other problems that crop up in other designs.

ST JOHN: Jonathan, thanks for those questions. JW, we’ve only got just a very short amount of time left. Do you have a response?

AUGUST: Oh, thank you for that last bit of information. I wasn’t aware of that. As to the county building, I remember it being closed, too, but I don’t remember if it was for retrofitting, the tower, the tower.

ST JOHN: That’s right.

AUGUST: And as far as the law itself, no, all buildings are not the same – created the same. They actually have people come out. There are contractors in town that’ll come out to do this, and they’ll look and see what needs to be done. If you don’t need the walls braced to the roof, then you don’t have to get the walls braced to the roof. But each building’s different.

ST JOHN: Okay, we’re going to have to leave that for right now but I don’t know whether to say I hope we don’t have to talk about this anymore in the future but it’s inevitable there’s going to be more shaking and presumably there’s going to be more action on those codes as well. Stay with us here on Editors Roundtable. And coming up, we’re going to be speaking about the law in Arizona and the legal battle over how to enforce immigration laws.

KPBS has created a public safety coverage policy to guide decisions on what stories we prioritize, as well as whose narratives we need to include to tell complete stories that best serve our audiences. This policy was shaped through months of training with the Poynter Institute and feedback from the community. You can read the full policy here.