On shaky ground

New art gallery,7436 Monterey St.

The city’s strategy for fixing up vacant, earthquake-unsafe
buildings that mar downtown is as shaky as the buildings
themselves, downtown property owners say.
The city’s strategy for fixing up vacant, earthquake-unsafe buildings that mar downtown is as shaky as the buildings themselves, downtown property owners say.

For instance, the 84-year-old Johnson’s Drug Store building in downtown Gilroy survived the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake without a scratch, its glass and wooden cases along the wall and an antique cabinet and mirror remaining intact. However, the structure at 7451 Monterey St. is not deemed to be earthquake-safe by the City of Gilroy, and it remains shuttered today.

Building owner Mike Gaeta, who also owns an adjacent “unreinforced masonry” building – known as a URM building – could face a $10,000 monthly city fine if he does not get his buildings retrofitted by July 1.

However, banks are unwilling to provide funding if there are no tenants in the building, and the city will not allow tenants because of its URM status, Gaeta said. In addition, construction required to retrofit one of his properties would impact a neighboring property owner, so he would have to pay for those additional repairs, he said.

“You’re stuck between a rock and a hard place because you either get fined by the city or end up in a lawsuit with your neighbor,” Councilman Perry Woodward said.

Gilroy’s City Council has twice extended the deadline for property owners to get URM buildings up to code as a result of such challenges. Now, a task force charged with addressing URM challenges is advising the city to revise its URM strategy entirely, focusing primarily on structural issues that constitute a safety issue.

“If you’ve got a plan that’s not working, it’s time to revisit the plan,” said downtown developer Gary Walton, who sits on the city’s URM building task force.

Walton estimates that 20 to 25 percent of the buildings in Gilroy are URM structures. Large clusters of those buildings are on the west side of Fourth and Fifth streets.

“It looks like a ghost town right now,” said Ashford’s Heirlooms owner Steve Ashford, who also sits on the city’s URM building task force. “When people come through town they say, ‘Wow, you’re town looks dead.'”

If all that were not enough, 17 of the city’s nearly 32 URM buildings are owned by out-of-town people or companies. Some of these property owners have not been cooperative, Woodward said.

Task force members hope that a revised approach may help save some of downtown Gilroy’s historic buildings while addressing safety issues. The council is likely to consider an amended version of its URM ordinance sometime in mid-April or early May, said Kristi Abrams, development center manager for the City of Gilroy.

“It’s important that we do not create an ordinance that makes it almost impossible to preserve our historic buildings,” Walton said.

For instance, Walton has talked to engineers who say it is virtually impossible to build a brick building up to current codes, he said.

Although the state requires full retrofits for most buildings, some exceptions are made for historical structures, Walton said.

He mentioned that the City of Oakland’s URM program focuses exclusively on the matter issues, paying attention to potential falling hazards and ornaments that could constitute a safety hazard. Parapets that loom above sidewalks are one example of a human safety issue that would need to be addressed in the new ordinance, Abrams said. By contrast, parapets on the sides of buildings would not likely fall on people and would be less of a safety concern, she said.

“It’s a very, very complex problem,” Gilroy Historical Society President Connie Rogers said of URM buildings. “I think the city is correct that real safety violations that could kill or injure a person have to be fixed, but that doesn’t necessarily mean tearing down the building.”

Gilroy’s URM building retrofit ordinance dates back to November 2006, when the city gave URM building owners three years to complete retrofit work. However, the city’s involvement with URM issues goes back much further.

A state law approved in 1986 required city governments to take an inventory of unreinforced masonry buildings by 1990 and to establish a mitigation plan for potentially dangerous buildings. The City of Gilroy required all URM building owners in town to have an engineering analysis done by early 1992.

A 2004 memo gave a progress report of the city URM program, highlighting the biggest potential hazards in town.

In March 2007, the council added provisions to the retrofit ordinance that prevented property owners from leasing URM buildings that were vacant for more than 24 hours. Yet, the council voted in October to extend the penalty deadline for the retrofit ordinance until April, and it voted earlier this month to extend it once again until July.

Woodward was particularly concerned about penalizing businesses who wanted to retrofit their buildings but had uncooperative neighbors.

On the other hand, Councilman Craig Gartman said he has not heard any specific reasons from downtown property owners about why the council should extend the deadline for not retrofitting. He has only heard excuses, he said.

Gartman – the only councilman to vote against extending the deadline – said downtown property owners have had plenty of time to retrofit their buildings, and it is time for the city to hold the line.

“At a certain point in time, you’ve gotta hold to your requirements,” Gartman said Monday.

Mayor Al Pinheiro, who along with Woodward sits on the URM building task force, made it clear that he believed property owners who waited several years to retrofit their buildings and are now complaining of financial problems should be held accountable. At the same time, those who are trying to do the right thing should not be penalized, he said.

As a result, he is advocating for a policy that focuses on addressing seismic safety issues first.

“Life is changing around us,” Pinheiro said. “What has not changed is that we have to keep our citizens safe.”

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