Culver City Council Approves 'Soft Story' Retrofitting Ordinance

The Culver City Council has introduced and approved a seismic retrofit ordinance to address "soft story" buildings in Culver City. These buildings are wood construction that have soft, weak, open front walls (SWOF) at the ground floor that are particularly vulnerable to earthquakes, said city officials.

At its recent meeting, the Council also directed staff to explore financial incentives, fee waivers and/or reductions for landlords since seismic retrofitting is "very expensive" and to return with all the findings to Council by the end of the year.

According to city officials, a "soft story" building has one or more floors with windows, wide doors, large unobstructed commercial spaces or other openings in places where a shear wall would normally be required for stability. A typical soft story building is located over a ground level with large openings, such as a parking garage or series of retail businesses with large windows.

Buildings are classified as having a soft story if that level is less than 70% as stiff as the floor immediately above it, or less than 80% as stiff as the average stiffness of the three floors above it. City officials said soft story buildings are vulnerable to collapse in a moderate to severe earthquake in a phenomenon known as "soft story collapse."

According to city officials, there are 609 wood buildings in both residential and multi-family/commercial zones that are potential SWOF structures in Culver City, including 26 commercial buildings.

Retrofitting such a SWOF building would cost between $80,000 and $160,000, said city staff in a report. "These costs are an approximation and are only intended for the purposes of understanding probable cost when exploring financial retrofit programs by the City."

The ordinance, which will be officially adopted at the September 27 Council meeting – includes a process for property owner notification and five-year compliance timeline, with priority designations based on building size.

At last week's meeting, the Council addressed the safety objectives of seismic retrofitting and acknowledged the financial implications, particularly for the city's smaller "Mom and Pop" landlords.

Councilmembers talked about the Culver City rent control ordinance which allows rental housing providers to request to pass-through 50% of the cost of an eligible capital improvement project, amortized over the life of the improvement, with the aggregate cap of the pass-through costs not to exceed 3% of the renter's rent.

Agreeing the 3% cap may be too small for "mom and pop' landlords, the Council also raised the possibility of increasing the pass-through portion of the retrofit costs to renters.

In the end, the Council asked staff to explore higher pass-through cap, low-cost city financing options, fee waivers, fee reduction or refund for seismic retrofit work – incentives offered by other cities with seismic law such as Beverly Hills and West Hollywood


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