March 30, 1994 - From the March, 1994 issue

Mayor Abdo: Earthquake Inspires New Consensus in Santa Monica

In the wake of the January 17th Northridge earthquake that devastated the city of Santa Monica, TPR presents an interview with Santa Monica Mayor Judy Abdo to discuss how this unique city is approaching and funding the task of rebuilding as well as balancing the competing policies of tightly managed growth with the sudden need for rapid recovery strategies.

Mayor Abdo, please share with our readers the extent of the physical damage in the City of Santa Monica resulting from the January 17th earthquake.

At the height of the damage in the first couple of weeks after the earthquake, we had nearly 600 buildings that were either red or yellow tagged. Presently, we have 3,000 to 4,000 people out of their homes and a large number of businesses that have also been dislocated. We have approximately $230 million worth of structural damage to both public and private buildings in the City of Santa Monica. 

St. John's Hospital, Santa Monica's largest private employer, is closed. Also, Santa Monica Hospital is down to one hundred and nine beds. Before the quake, there were approximately 500 beds. Both hospitals will rebuild but they will never be the same. Santa Monica College has lost at least one large building, their science building, they have some parking structure damage, and a lot of damage inside their buildings, about $25 million in total. Lincoln Middle School was damaged quite a bit, and is now operating out of portable classrooms for some of their classes. 

Has this extensive quake damage resulted in any actions of the City Council to revise codes and planning procedures in Santa Monica? 

Recovery is critical. On the day after the earthquake, the City Council immediately adopted two emergency ordinances: the first to waive all planning and building fees for earthquake repair permits, and the second to create and expedite the repair approval process. To date, several hundred building permits have been approved under theses ordinances. The Council later adopted an anti-gouging ordinance, an ordinance requiring the submittal of structural reports for damaged buildings, and an anti-eviction ordinance. The building code changes we have made so far have to do with chimneys and walls over 42" in height. We lost many chimneys and we wanted to have the repairs be stronger. As a result, we passed a new ordinance on chimney repair that is similar to Los Angeles'. We are also requiring more rigorous standards for construction of masonry walls in the City. We are expecting to consider other building code changes related to "soft story", tilt-up and unreinforced construction. The Building and Safety Commission will make recommendations in these areas to the City Council.

What is the condition of the City's many historic structures? 

The unreinforced masonry buildings were hard hit. The seismic upgrading that had been completed worked, in that we did not have any loss of life. We had few buildings experience total collapse but lots of bricks did fall off. In the northwestern portion of the City, a number of the very elegant, 1920's era apartment buildings were heavily damaged, such as the Charmont and the El Cortez. What was amazing about the damage in Santa Monica is that there was a great deal of damage to non masonry buildings. They range from tuck-under construction to tilt-up to regular warehouse construction, and even some wood-frame houses had a great deal of damage. As we are looking at the damage, we're not thinking that it's a code issue, we are looking at what to do with our older buildings in the City. What makes sense is to help people preserve their buildings and to make them safer. We are not interested in tearing down any old buildings that can be saved. 

What ideas have surfaced to preserve these older buildings? 

We have a group of people who have been working very hard to try to bring preservation institutions and other interested group into Santa Monica in order to secure grant and land money for repairs to historic buildings. I think we are going to be successful. We know that there is some national interest, and definitely state interest. For a while, we were having almost daily visits from preservation advocates looking at our larger, older buildings that contain up to one hundred or more units of housing for mostly low-income and senior tenants. We are hoping that the State will be making grant monies available that will be targeted for repair of the City's damaged historic buildings. There is a strong desire among the owners, tenants, the City, and preservation advocates to find ways to preserve these buildings. 

Is this preservation effort a City led or a public/private venture? 

It is a team effort. We are trying to determine to what extent FEMA assistance will be available. It's clear that there is going to be a gap no matter what direction we go with re­building. For instance, say there is a building that was economically viable before the earthquake, but now the building is without tenants while everyone wants to repair it. All this is fine, but there is probably no money to be borrowed. If there was financing available, and they tried to work out how the repayment was going to be made, it is my belief that the burden on the tenants would be more than market rate, so the rents would not support the repairs that would have to be done. We are talking about millions of dollars to restore these buildings. What we are looking at is a reality gap in what can be reasonably penciled out for an owner to borrow money and what can be reasonably expected for tenants to pay. 

Santa Monica bas a strong rent-control program in force, and obviously the damage to multi-family structures is disrupting this program. How is the City going to cope with the potentially inconsistent objectives of encouraging new investment in housing and preservation of the City's rent control program? 

The Rent Control Board recognized the importance of quick action to address the issue of repair costs. In the first week of the earthquake recovery, the Rent Control Board enacted emergency regulations that allow for dollar-for-dollar pass-through of costs incurred by owners in repairing earthquake damage and making seismic improvements. More recently, the City Council and the Rent Board met together in a joint session to further explore what we can do together. This again is another situation where most owners, most tenants, the Rent Board, City Council and the City staff all have the same goal: to get tenants back into the buildings. There is an unusual amount of goodwill going on in trying to solve the problems of figuring out how to repair damaged buildings. However, this is a very complex situation. Clearly owners are going to have to be given incentives to rebuild. But the options are not always good for the owners in any case. Repairs cost a lot of money, demolition and rebuilding costs money, financing is problematic, and many of the owners are not experienced developers. The Council and Rent Board together have developed a set of rebuild regulations which we feel will go a long way towards addressing these issues. However, City and rent control regulations are not the only variables in this equation. We're also working with HUD and SBA to try to solve these problems. 

If an owner demolished their apartment buildings to build condominiums, would they find a receptive audience in City Hall? 

Our objective is to replace the units which have been lost and ideally make them available to the people who lived there on January 16. Thus, if an owner had a non-conforming rental housing building severely damaged by the earthquake, we will provide incentives to rebuild the units without making the owner comply with current zoning codes. If they wish to develop condominiums instead or rebuilding what was there, they would have to meet current zoning standards, including a requirement for 30% inclusionary affordable units. Also, the zoning has changed dramatically throughout the City, so in many cases they wouldn't be able to build the same number of condominium units as what used to be there. In addition, the market is very soft for condominiums. There are four brand new condos that have been on the market for six months that are standing empty next to my house. And this is true all over the City. We expect our “rebuild" ordinance to be in place within the next 30 days. 

What have been the lessons learned by the City when working with FEMA? 

We're still learning them, so it's hard to say anything conclusive. When President Clinton had his press conference, I was able to get up and say, 'By the way, Santa Monica had damage, Mr. President.' As a result, we had visitations from practically everybody. Both our Senators, and the Director of FEMA, James Lee Witt, and the Director of the State Office of Emergency Services, Dick Andrews came to town. Henry Cisneros and I were interviewed together on CNN. Other FEMA teams have also come through. So everyone knows we are here. They all know we have a problem and we are trying to be consistent in our message, which is that we have some housing issues which are unlike most cities. We don't have vacancies to absorb people who are out of their homes, and that is a major issue, because we are going to have people who have lost their community, unless we can find a way to put them back into their former units. 

The other message we are trying to get out is that Santa Monica is recovering well. In the midst of this disaster, our hotels are operating, the Santa Monica Pier is doing fine, the Promenade is doing fine, movie theaters are operating, and we want people to get the message that they should come here, because we need them here. So we are trying to get both of those messages across to FEMA and to the world. But there are still many questions left unanswered from the FEMA process, and as people are going through the process, new issues arise and we all have to try and resolve these issues together. We are meeting with housing people from Washington D.C. to try and resolve some of them. 

What are impacts on the City's transportation infrastructure as a result of the breach of the 1-10 freeway? 

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Our main agenda for the last two years has been to get light-rail on the Exposition right-of-way. We are still committed to this. We believe it would mean people who live here and the people who come to work or play would have much easier access to transit. Since the earthquake, the difficulties people have getting to the east side of town are having a big impact on people. I don't think there is nearly as much basic travel going back and forth. People aren't making the back and forth trips to spend money as they did in the past. They are either staying on this side or the east side, and that is not necessarily good for the economics of this region. I don't know what it will mean long-term if people are telecommuting more; if that is reality or if that is just what we are hearing.

What has been the receptivity, from an inter-governmental point of view, to your request for building light-rail along the existing Exposition Corridor? 

The MTA is a new agency, and we are trying to build relationships with the newer members. It's hard to know where it's all going to land. The 30-year plan was thrown out, so now we are starting over on that. We do have some political allies, who have been working with us for a long time, and of course, there is a problem of Rancho Park and Cheviot Hills right in the middle of the corridor where people are adamantly against it. We are quite willing to work with these communities to make sure that the problems they envision don't take place, whether the issue is rerouting or whatever. We are very committed to it and we know there are people along the line who are very committed to it. We believe that the federal government is also committed to having transit everywhere in this region. 

Turning again to land-use issues, the City of Santa Monica recently rezoned the eastern, industrial part of the City; could you tell us a little bit about the goals of this rezoning process? 

It's an area that I guess you could say is underutilized. It's sort of a mish­mash of a whole lot of different buildings, some of which are being used and other which are not. The rezoning has been aimed at trying to attract entertainment and movie industry-related businesses, which are often very small manufacturing and computer software type businesses. We want those in that area. Because we have large entertainment businesses such as Sony, MGM and Skywalker Sound, we believe that this would be a good area for smaller business that crop up around these large entertainment centers. Also, we would like to explore innovative housing opportunities on a few parcels where there might be shared or mixed use. 

For years, Los Angeles has been talking about creating a mixed-use ordinance that really works, and some have pointed to Santa Monica as a city that has a regulatory environment and an investment climate to facilitate mixed-use development. Are there any lessons that you could share on the essentials of creating feasible, mixed-use projects? 

Here on the West Coast, we are still just beginning to understand mixed-use development. The East Coast figured this out from the beginning of their history. Unless you look very hard at this issue, it's difficult to get a program off the ground. On the Promenade, we have mixed-use that is working. We've put into our zoning codes incentives to have housing built along our main corridors of Santa Monica and Wilshire, and in all of downtown. In the Promenade area, we have parking that allows us to be more flexible. Parking is the main issue on any given parcel, but parking hasn't been the driving issue of whether or not mixed-use can be built. That's not where the arguments have formed. Mostly the arguments have been around financing, persuading the people with money that this kind of a mix will work. 

Santa Monica had a reputation of being developer unfriendly, decidedly biased in favor of limited growth. Given the earthquake and the need to rebuild, what land-use reputation is most appropriate and descriptive of Santa Monica? 

First, I want to correct that impression somewhat. I know we've had a reputation for being unfriendly to developers. But what we have really been unfriendly to is speculators. If you look around our city, you'll see we have had a great deal of development going on during the last 10 to 15 years. Most of it has been done in a fairly responsible manner, but that is because we have had a clear and strict notion of what should happen in Santa Monica, and haven't allowed rampant development. Now, some people would say we have allowed too much, but others think we have been pretty rational about the development that has gone on in Santa Monica. And that is why our city is so wonderful and such a desirable place to be. We are all very committed to making sure the businesses in Santa Monica are very successful. 

I think our focus needs to be, looking at who is here and what we can do as a city to make sure we continue to be successful and get out of this recession. The earthquake is clearly going to make a little blip in the recovery. We expect to lose between $2 and $7 millions of city revenue just because of the earthquake. We had $2 million less spent in hotels than we had expected during the first two weeks after the earthquake. And that's real money that will never come back. But we are very committed to making sure that businesses in Santa Monica are successful. 

What's happening with the Santa Monica Civic Center Plan?

The Civic Center Specific Plan was recently approved by the City Council, and includes improvements to the RAND property, a new Police building, an expansion of the County Courthouse facility, and an upgrade to the circulation pattern, as well as creating a much more aesthetically pleasing civic area. Opponents of the plan have qualified an initiative, and the matter will be before the voters of the City, who will ultimately decide the outcome. 

Given the extensive damage from the quake, how, from your vantage point as Mayor, will Santa Monica look in the year 2000?

Physically, I think that it will still be a beautiful place with a diverse set of buildings and will still be pedestrian oriented and neighborhood-friendly. I think we will be able to preserve most of the older, historic buildings that were damaged. I don't think the overall look is going to be a great deal different. I think how the community is going to look and feel, will be stronger than ever, because of the new relationships that have been forged. 

People who have been mean and nasty to each other the last few years are working very well together to solve problems. I think landlords and tenants of damaged buildings, and even landlord tenant organizations are trying to struggle with issues that are just reality, and tenants and landlords need each other. If there are no landlords, there are no tenants to live in units. The danger is that if we lose these buildings, there will be empty land for a long time and it won't be good for anybody. There are some landlords who have been "bad words" in some households, who are now rolling up their sleeves trying to figure out how to help their tenants. 

How is that changing the politics of the City? 

I don't know what it means in the long term. It has been over a month now, and we have had the most serene relationships with the City Council we have ever had for this particular two-year period. People who wouldn't even talk to each other are now having meaningful conversations.

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