Quake safety is still an issue

Mayor says only 5-6 buildings need quake retrofit

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A walk down Monterey Street in Gilroy should be a stroll through the vibrant heart of a city, but instead of bustling store fronts, passersby are more likely to see boarded-up buildings.

The empty commercial spaces in Gilroy’s core are often attributed to the city’s unreinforced masonry buildings, which aren’t up to earthquake retrofitting codes. Under an ordinance adopted in 2011, the city has legal authority and responsibility to require property owners to protect their buildings—and the people who work in them and walk by them—against earthquake damage.

While there seems to be a consensus among City Council members that the abandoned buildings are a problem, what to do about them is still a topic of debate. During the November election, candidates offered solutions, with several floating the idea of seizing buildings that have not been retrofitted, using the city’s right of eminent domain.

Dion Bracco and Carol Marques, who both won council seats, are proponents of using eminent domain. At a council study session on Nov. 26,  council members were presented with a long-awaited report that gave them options to consider when approaching the unreinforced-building issue.

Mayor Roland Velasco said at the meeting that the problem is not as widespread as people may believe, adding that only five or six unreinforced buildings still exist in the city. Many buildings are currently being retrofitted or have been moved off of the list.

The memo presented by Assistant City Attorney Jolie Houston laid out two frequently discussed options for the council: nuisance abatement and eminent domain.

Houston told the council, “The real problem right now is the URM buildings and how to get them retrofitted and back into use.”

Nuisance abatement refers to a building hazard that is deemed a public nuisance, which the city can order the property owner to repair. Houston’s memo said that if the owner can’t or won’t abate the problems with the property, then the city can take on the responsibility without taking ownership of the building.

The property would be fixed by the city, and the property owner would pay back the cost at a later date. The city could take legal action against owners who do not abate their buildings; if the city were to take on the abatement, then a lien would be placed on the property for the costs.

In eminent domain, the city would take ownership of the property after compensating the owner at the fair market rate. Once the city owns the property, it could demolish the building, and anything put in its place would have to be for public use, such as a park, paseo or parking.

Councilmember Cat Tucker said at the meeting that all public uses for eminent domain properties are also part of the already existing downtown master plan.

The council has used eminent domain in the past, acquiring properties for the fire station and the city’s cultural arts facility.

Councilmember Peter Leroe-Muñoz was supportive of an eminent domain option, saying he felt it gave the city more control over what the property would be used for and would ensure that the downtown space was filled.

Bracco offered the option of a city-funded loan program for property owners, but still entertained the idea of eminent domain as a last resort. “I think we can do a loan program where we make decent interest off of this money, not as a long-term loans, but as a construction loan,” he said. “And after they build a building on it, then it’s worth money again and they can borrow money from a traditional bank and pay us back.”

Gary Walton, president of the Downtown Business Association, told the Dispatch that intervening with property owners using either abatement or eminent domain is not a viable option for the council.

He told the council that enforcing maintenance codes or creating stricter codes for property owners would require less money and time and was much more attainable for the city.

Walton said there are misconceptions about the conditions of some downtown buildings. He said two of the buildings that are commonly believed to be unreinforced masonries are not: 7568 and 7574 Monterey St., which are north of Golden State Brewery. While both are vacant buildings that are visibly blighted, Walton told the Dispatch that the properties had been inspected and do not have the structural problems identified as earthquake risks.

These two buildings are frequently referred to by council members as examples of vacant space that add to the downtown’s unappealing look. Walton said enforcing or creating maintenance codes would use the least amount of resources.

He added that exercising eminent domain would take too much city time and money. “ It doesn’t happen overnight; people do have property rights,” Walton said.

In some cases, Walton said, the cost to reinforce the masonry buildings was more than the value of the property. He also believes that taking the properties through eminent domain and demolishing the existing structures would hurt the historical significance of Gilroy’s downtown.

Walton said, “Gilroy has already lost a lot of our history to the wrecking ball.”

Following the study session, Velasco asked city staff to send the council more information on the history of unreinforced masonry buildings in the city. He also asked staff to move forward with looking into and enforcing existing maintenance codes for the vacated buildings.

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