GWNC Monthly Board Meeting Presents Info on Soft-Story Retrofits and Recent Power Outages

LADWP Chief Operating Officer Marty Adams talks to the GWNC board last night about the July heat-related power outages in the area.

In a lengthy but information-packed meeting last night, the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council included special presentations on soft-story retrofits, and the recent heat-related power outages in our area, at its monthly board meeting.

Town Hall on Soft-Story Retrofits

“Soft-story” apartment building

First, immediately preceding the regular meeting, there was a Town Hall-style presentation on earthquake retrofitting for “soft-story” apartment buildings (those of 2+ stories, with mostly wood frames, built before 1978 and over ground-level parking), with lots of information for both building owners and tenants.

Representatives of the Quakestrong firm, which advertises itself as an all-inclusive, start-to-finish retrofitting firm, explained that apartment buildings used to be built to handle only “vertical load” – in other words, able to hold themselves upright and not fall down.  But they weren’t designed to handle lateral movement, which is more common during an earthquake.  For example, damage and collapses of soft-story buildings during the Northridge earthquake in 1994 were due largely to structures collapsing as a result of the lateral shaking.

In 2015, according to Carlos Aguilar, representing the tenants’ rights group Coalition for Economic Survival, who also spoke at the meeting, the city passed the Earthquake Hazard Reduction Ordinance in 2015 to require that owners of such buildings retrofit the structures for greater safety.  And in February of 2016, the city passed another ordinance allowing landlords to pass along 50% of the retrofit cost to their tenants (in the form of temporary rent increases), to help make the necessary improvements more affordable.

Since then, said a Quakestrong representative, the city has sent out Notices to Comply to all owners of soft-story buildings in the city, and owners have up to two years to apply for permits and begin the process.  If all goes according to schedule, and based on various mandated deadlines, all soft-story buildings in the city should be retrofitted within seven years of when the city notices were sent.

According to the Quakestrong spokesperson, when landlords want to do a soft-story retrofit, they can contact a full-service company (such as Quakestrong) that will design the right construction/engineering solution for the building, take care of city approvals and permitting, and handle tenant relations during the process.  That all-important communications process includes creation of and compliance with a city-required Tenant Habilitability Plan, which outlines the full scope of the work, along with construction schedules, timelines, and whether or not tenants will need to be (or at least have the option of being) relocated during the construction process.

Whether or not tenants will be relocated depends on whether their particular unit will remain habitable and safe from things like dust and hazardous materials during the construction.  If tenants do have to relocate, according to Aguilar and the Quakestrong representatives, the landlord is responsible for finding “comparable” accommodations (same amenities, pet rules, number of bedrooms, etc.) and covering all moving and/or storage costs, as well as rent at the temporary location.  (Tenants continue to pay their usual rent to the landlord during the relocation.)  If construction will last more than 30 days, according to the THP, or if the construction period exceeds the timeline outlined in the THP, tenants may also have the option of relocating permanently, with the moving costs again covered by the landlord.

For more information on the soft-story retrofit process, see the above links, and/or these pamphlets from the City of Los Angeles:  Los Angeles Soft-Story Retrofit Program: Property Owner’s Guide or Los Angeles Seismic Retrofit Program: Tenant Habitability Plan and Cost Recovery Guide for Property Owners.

Local Heat-Related Power Outages

Later, as part of the regularly-scheduled GWNC Board meeting, several special guests, including LADWP Chief Operating Officer Marty Adams, City Council Member David Ryu, and LADPW Ratepayer Advocate Fred Pickel, spoke in great detail about the heat-related power outages in our area over the July 6-10 weekend, which hit the Windsor Square and Larchmont Village communities particularly hard.

According to Adams, there were several reasons these communities suffered the greatest outages.  First, temperatures during that July 6-10 period spiked very suddenly, rising more than 20 degrees between July 5 and July 6, when the first outages began.  This temperature spike created a similar sudden spike in power usage, as residents turned on, and/or turned up, their air conditioning at the same time.  Adams said this surge in use caused the power cables themselves to heat up, and because most of the cables in this area are underground, temperatures in the underground vaults the cables run through reached 160 or even 170 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to burn through their insulation.  Or, as he put it, they were “cooking from the inside.”

DWP photo showing power cable with heat-damaged insulation

Another problem, Adams said, was that the damage in the mostly underground lines was harder to locate than it would have been in overhead power lines, which are more visible.  And because crews didn’t know what kinds of damage, or how much, they were dealing with until they found it.  They also couldn’t provide repair time estimates until the location and identification work was complete.

Then, according to Adams, each cable splice, to replace damaged wire, takes up to 16 hours to complete, once the damaged section is identified.  And there were a LOT of damaged cables, leaving about 114,000 DWP customers without power at one time or another during that critical weekend.

Also, Adams reminded the audience, all of the repairs had to be done manually, by workers inside those 160-degree subterranean cable vaults, which was truly a super-human effort.

Adams also explained that the DWP is currently in the midst of a five-year, $13 billion infrastructure replacement project, with about $3.7 billion of that completed or in process so far.  (Most of the cables in our area, he said are actually about 35 years old – not ancient, but definitely pre-dating our current streak of record or near-record heat, and the significant increase in air conditioning units installed in local homes, which weren’t originally built with such amenities).

He also said that the department is working with the City Council to reduce restrictions on working hours, to help the overall repairs and upgrades move faster…and is considering using some periods of scheduled outages to help further facilitate the improvement work.  And he said, DWP would be working hard to improve communications with customers, including greater use of social media like NextDoor.com and placement of a communications person in the DWP’s emergency office.

Later Pickel, the DWP’s Ratepayer Advocate, also explained that while it does seem that some local customers lose power frequently, Los Angeles actually ranks among the better cities when it comes to average power outages per customer per year, and the length of those outages. He did acknowledge, though, that when it’s your power that’s out, it’s hard to take comfort in overall averages.

Finally, Council Member Ryu said that from his perspective, the biggest problem during the outages was communication…even though he was on the phone “24/7” with Adams during the weekend of the outages, it was too hard, even for him, to find out what was going on.  Ryu said, however, that while it was “unacceptable what happened,” it was also “a good exercise where we saw the deficiencies” in the city’s systems.

Ryu reminded the audience that, as he had announced in a statement on July 31, he and Council Member Mitch O’Farrell have introduced a motion requesting a full accounting from the DWP of the circumstances that led to the recent power outages, immediate actions taken to address the outages, and the causes for delay in restoring power…as well as identification of infrastructure upgrades currently underway, the projected timelines for those upgrades, accountability measures in place to ensure the timely completion of projects, to prevent widespread outages in the future and steps being taken to make the DWP’s electrical infrastructure more climate-change resilient. The motion also instructs LADWP to report on ways to improve its sharing of accurate, real-time information with customers, as well as with partner agencies and emergency responders.

“We’re going to push this forward,” he promised at last night’s meeting.

City Council Member David Ryu addresses the meeting.

At the same time, last night, however, Ryu also applauded the DWP’s repair efforts during the outages, and especially the department’s current promises to improve communications moving forward.  He acknowledged that having more information to pass along to constituents wouldn’t fix things faster, but he said it would help people have a sense of what is wrong during an outage, and how long they could expect to be without power.  (A sentiment many neighbors agreed with during a brief Q&A session after the presentations.)

Finally, Ryu noted that all of the improvements discussed are extremely important because “these heat waves aren’t going to stop…this is global warming.”

Other Business

LAPD Senior Lead Officer Hebel Rodriguez provides a local crime update

Later, addressing its regular agenda items, the Board heard a report from LAPD Wilshire Division Senior Lead Officer Hebel Rodriguez, who said property crimes are up in the area over the last month, with most of them thefts from vehicles, including a number of catalytic converters stolen from Honda and Toyota cars.  Rodriguez cautioned people to not leave valuable items in their cars, to always lock their cars, and – if possible – to store car keys in the house wrapped in foil and/or a plastic container (or in a special signal-blocking pouch) to help guard against would-be thieves who might try to remotely control electronic key fobs.

Rodriguez also cautioned homeowners to keep windows and doors locked, noting that in 4 of 10 recent residential burglaries, the thieves entered houses through a rear window that was left open.

Finally, in land use issues, the Board (following its policy of opposing projects for which the developers have not yet responded to Land Use Committee requests for community outreach) voted unanimously to oppose as currently presented a new 51-unit apartment development planned for 985-991 3rd Avenue…and voted to support an application for extended hours at a pet supply and grooming store in a mini-mall at 5770 W. Melrose Ave.

The next GWNC Land Use Committee meeting will be held on Tuesday, August 28, at 6:30 p.m. at Marlborough School (250 S. Rossmore Ave.), and the next GWNC Board meeting will be held on Wednesday, September 12, 7 p.m. at the Ebell of Los Angeles, 743 S. Lucerne Blvd.

[This story was updated after publication to add details of David Ryu’s city council motion on the recent power outages.]

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About Elizabeth Fuller

Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - first in the Sycamore Square neighborhood, and since 2012 in West Adams Heights/Sugar Hill. She was long-time board member of the Sycamore Square Neighborhood Association, currently serves on the board of the West Adams Heights/Sugar Hill Neighborhood Association, spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and is the co-owner/publisher of the Buzz.

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