Shaky buildings, shady owners

Many owners of dangerous buildings downtown shun city’s offer to
help lay the groundwork for repairs
Gilroy – The city will pay the tab for engineering studies that could pinpoint hazardous buildings in the downtown area, but the majority of landlords who control the 25 buildings – almost all located on Monterey Street – have shown little interest in the program so far, according to city officials.

Officials are offering the free studies in hopes that property owners will “retrofit” their unreinforced masonry buildings – if needed – to avoid falling bricks during an earthquake.

The city sent building owners a series of letters in recent months informing them of a $100,000 grant available for engineering studies. About 20 people came to a November meeting on the subject, but only five signed on to participate.

City Administrator Jay Baksa told City Council members that property owners know their buildings may pose a threat, but they appear reluctant to commit to an engineering study.

“What we’re seeing is ‘I don’t know and I don’t want to know,’ ” Baksa said, describing the attitude among most owners. “It’s scary.”

Nothing can be done to force building owners to conduct the study, according to John Greenhut, head of the city’s building department. An ordinance written in 1989 makes safety assessments of unreinforced masonry buildings “purely voluntary.” The city can force repairs by withholding a building permit when an owner seeks to “intensify” uses, such as when an office gets converted to a restaurant or a similar upgrade.

State law only allows the city to condemn a structure that poses an obvious danger – such as when a roof is caving in or walls are buckling.

“If a building starts to fall down, if it looks like it’s going to be a danger to somebody, we can go in and tag the building and cause the property owner to do something,” Greenhut said. “Short of that there’s not much we can do.”

A new state law that took effect Jan. 1 has introduced one penalty – a $250 citation for owners of unreinforced buildings who do not post warning signs.

The city could take a stronger position that mandates retrofitting older buildings, Community Development Director Wendie Rooney said, but leaders have so far opted for an incentive-based approach.

Efforts to induce cooperation in the last two years include waiving fees in the downtown area for construction or renovation projects. The free engineering study is another incentive.

But owners remain hesitant despite the city’s coaxing. Of the five who agreed to participate in the study, two own buildings – at 7477 and 7760 Monterey St. – that would otherwise be condemned.

“None of the others are in a dangerous building category,” Greenhut said. “If we do these studies, it may reveal some other buildings that are in bad shape.”

And that’s exactly what seems to worry some owners.

Steven Ashford runs a family antique business out of his building at 7547 Monterey St. He has tentatively agreed to participate in the engineering study, but even he wants “to see what strings are attached” before committing.

“The price of steel is way up,” Ashford said. “The cost of the retrofits are up there. They [city officials] say ‘You do the retrofits and you can raise the rent,’ but we have five new empty buildings in the last few months. … The downtown’s dying. People can’t make rent now, and they’re wanting us to spend more money.”

Ashford acknowledged the importance of ensuring public safety, but questioned if his personal participation in the program would translate into a real improvement in safety.

“We’ve done some of the corrections,” said Ashford, who retrofitted his antique store, following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

“The building next door to me – that’s twice as tall,” he said. “We could have an earthquake and that building could still come tumbling down. … I’m waiting to see what the city’s going to do.”

Today, Council members were expected to discuss their policy towards unreinforced buildings during their annual retreat.

Council members have the power to take a stronger approach by passing an ordinance mandating an engineering study and retrofitting, if necessary.

“I believe it’s the responsibility of the city to make sure that we inspect buildings and that they be rendered safe,” said Mayor Al Pinheiro. He planned to call each landowner in coming weeks to ask for their participation in the program.

“I don’t want to wake up one morning after an earthquake and some people have been killed downtown,” he said. “We have to know where we stand.”

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