Council extends deadline to fix URM buildings

Sting nabs unlicensed contractors

Downtown property owners will have five more months to get their
unreinforced masonry buildings up to code after the City Council
voted 6-0 Monday to extend the deadline to fix them until Dec.
Downtown property owners will have five more months to get their unreinforced masonry buildings up to code after the City Council voted 6-0 Monday to extend the deadline to fix them until Dec. 31. After that, they will face fines of $10,000 per month.

The council already had postponed that deadline twice before Monday’s council meeting, but city staff wanted more time for a city-appointed unreinforced masonry task force to research issues such as funding resources, safety plan examples and incentives to retrofit the buildings.

Downtown developer Gary Walton, who sits on the URM committee, said he understood the city is short-staffed, but would still like to see an ordinance in place as soon as possible.

“There’s a cost to existing merchants downtown by not getting this done,” Walton said.

Unreinforced masonry buildings, or URMs, are structures that contain masonry materials that are not braced by reinforcing beams and could pose a safety hazard in an earthquake. Downtown Gilroy had 32 of the vacant structures as of May, causing portions of Monterey Street to appear largely abandoned.

Walton and Richard Spitler, CEO of the Gilroy Economic Development Corporation, recommended a program be in place that adhered to public safety standards yet was sensitive to the needs of building owners amidst the challenging economy. The URM task force is working on language for an ordinance that would address those challenges.

Councilman Bob Dillon also recommended the council lower the proposed fines when they are implemented, saying businesses could not afford a $10,000 monthly fine in this economy and no one believes the city would impose such a fee. He said the city needs to be serious about imposing city fees after the deadline.

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 in May to extend it once again until July.

In addition to discussing URM issues Monday, the council voted 4-2 on a motion by Councilman Perry Woodward to allow office uses on the first floors of downtown buildings during the next three years without a conditional use permit. A permit previously had been required.

“It just seems to me that the free market might do a better job at what we’re trying to do than government intervention,” Woodward said.

Council members Cat Tucker and Peter Arellano dissented on the matter.

Arellano asked Spitler whether there was a shortage of office space downtown before making his decision, and Spitler said that was not the case.

Councilman Craig Gartman excused himself from voting on the URM matter and the office issue because he rents property near downtown.

Dillon previously had proposed making no change to the current downtown office policy and keeping the conditional use requirement. However, that motion failed 3-3 with council members Dion Bracco, Tucker and Woodward dissenting.

While Walton said office uses may be better than vacancies, he felt it was better to have retail uses on the first floor. He also hoped office users did not take up downtown parking spaces that could be used by people who could patronize other businesses.

At the same time, issues such as office space and downtown parking have far less of an impact on downtown than the city’s unreinforced masonry challenges, Walton said.

“In terms of priority, the URM is an A,” Walton said. “The other things are Cs and Ds.”

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