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Students and Neighbors Knock on Berkeley Doors to Promote Seismic Safety

By Sasha Lekach (BCN)
Wednesday April 11, 2012 - 09:52:00 PM

A series of earthquakes centered in the Berkeley area at the end of 2011 jolted a group of neighbors, students and elected officials to push for building safety near the University of California at Berkeley campus in anticipation of the "Big One." 

This evening a group is canvassing the north and south side of campus, handing out a two-page letter to tenants in buildings the city has listed as potentially hazardous as part of the Soft Story Ordinance, which passed in 2005. 

The ordinance states buildings with soft, or weak, ground stories "are recognized by engineers and other seismic safety experts as having the potential for sustaining serious damage including collapse in the event of strong earthquakes." 

As of March 2012, the city's list catalogues 320 buildings with soft stories that are legally obligated to inform tenants about seismic danger and post a warning -- the first step in an effort to mandate seismic retrofitting. 

City law states building owners have two years after they are listed on the inventory to submit a screening and "a detailed seismic engineering evaluation report prepared by a qualified California licensed structural or civil engineer."  

Berkeley Rent Board commissioner Igor Tregub, who is working on the seismic compliance issue as a private citizen, said this step lacks enforcement because of what he sees as a lack of funding and priorities.  

He claims only one inspector keeps track of the list of soft-story buildings and cites this as a factor in the slow progress of seismic compliance, along with a dearth of complaints from tenants who may not know the law about their building and earthquake safety. 

Berkeley Property Owner Association president Sid Lakireddy said seismic retrofitting cannot move forward until the first step, the inventory, is cleaned up.  

He said his association has reviewed the list and found many buildings that are in compliance marked otherwise. 

"There might be some property owners without a doubt who are not in compliance, but they need help," Lakireddy said. 

Many building owners have limited English, little legal knowledge or are on the verge of bankruptcy, Lakireddy said, himself a Berkeley building owner. 

Lakireddy said the required engineering report can cost up to $10,000, "It's the most expensive part aside from the actual retrofit." 

He advised owners to work with the BPOA which can assist with the rules of compliance. 

"Being in compliance is not that difficult once people are aware of what they need to do," Lakireddy said. 

Tregub acknowledged that a small minority is evading the law and housing tenants in unsafe conditions. 

"Eighty percent certainly want what's best for tenants and Berkeley," he said. 

With today's day of action Tregub hopes to "get the city to take concrete action" in enforcing the ordinance. 

The group was scheduled to meet at the steps of Sproul Plaza on the Berkeley campus at 5 p.m. before handing out letters about the ordinance to nearby neighbors. 

Included signatures on the letter are Berkeley Rent Board Commissioners Tregub and Jesse Townley and Joey Freeman, the external affairs vice president of the Associated Students of the University of California. 

City Councilmembers Jesse Arreguin and Kriss Worthington were expected to speak at the event.