L.A.'s half-baked approach to quake readiness

downtown.jpgEveryone knows that older concrete buildings are especially vulnerable in an earthquake unless they're reinforced. The problem is that retrofitting can be very expensive, which is why building owners convinced the L.A. City Council in the 1990s to require adjustments only if the the property's use were to change - say a conversion to condos. So some older buildings are considered quite safe; others not so much. It's another example of the city's have and have-not governance, the LAT reports this morning:

About 100 buildings converted into residences have been retrofitted citywide, most of them in downtown. A Times analysis of city and county data found more than 1,000 buildings that could pose a risk of collapse. Unless the owners change the building's use, the structures are not required to be retrofitted. The retrofit law has given a measure of security to thousands of new downtown residents. But it has also left out thousands of others who still live and work in old concrete buildings: office workers, denizens of residential hotels, people on the line in sewing businesses. Many downtown residents and workers aren't aware of this divide.

The economics of earthquake preparedness are not easy. There is no such thing as 100 percent protection, of course, and yet we'd like to feel that government regulations have pushed the number closer to 80 than 20. But if the retrofit expenses are astronomical and the chance of a major quake in our lifetimes is anyone's guess, how do you measure cost and benefit? This, of course, has been the long-running question of how City Hall handles business and development, as I explain in the October issue of Los Angeles magazine:

Calibrating the right business climate can be tricky. If you give companies everything they want--little or no taxes, minimal regulation, multiple tax giveaways--the quality of life is decimated. You can't have that. But severely restricting growth so as to stifle job creation isn't the answer, either. You're looking for a middle ground, and L.A., perhaps surprisingly, has gotten fairly close. The accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, along with the Partnership for New York City, studied dozens of areas--from health care to intellectual capital--in 27 global cities, and Los Angeles placed a respectable 13th overall (behind New York and San Francisco but ahead of Seoul and Shanghai). The city does poorly with transportation, as you might expect, but in the "ease of doing business" category it ranked seventh, ahead of Tokyo.


The funny thing is that L.A. used to be a town where most anyone peddling his wares--from name-brand industrialists to two-bit hucksters--found a receptive constituency. "Los Angeles has always been the city of phony business opportunities, the city of swaps and trades, the city of auctions," wrote historian Carey McWilliams in 1946, describing how newcomers considered the place "one vast conspiracy of crooked real estate agents." But neighborhood activism beginning in the early 1960s, along with Sacramento's tax-heavy, antigrowth fervor, managed to restrict--some would say smother--the anything-goes attitude. Which brings us to the present push-pull between commerce and containment.

More by Mark Lacter:
American-US Air settlement with DOJ includes small tweak at LAX
Socal housing market going nowhere fast
Amazon keeps pushing for faster L.A. delivery
Another rugged quarter for Tribune Co. papers
How does Stanford compete with the big boys?
Those awful infographics that promise to explain and only distort
Best to low-ball today's employment report
Further fallout from airport shootings
Crazy opening for Twitter*
Should Twitter be valued at $18 billion?
Recent City Hall stories:
Garcettis are moving to Getty House in January
Council members at large (photo)
Greuel and others pitch Clinton for president (video)
Exit interview with Port of L.A.'s executive director
Garcetti on changing city hall culture

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Mark Lacter
Mark Lacter created the LA Biz Observed blog in 2006. He posted until the day before his death on Nov. 13, 2013.
Mark Lacter, business writer and editor was 59
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