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San Francisco still has 484 delinquent ‘soft-story’ buildings

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The city will place warning signs on properties deemed seismically unsafe

A car crushed underneath a partially collapsed building in the Marina.
Soft story buildings are particularly dangerous when resting on land prone to liquefaction, like these in the Marina during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
Photo by U.S. Geological Survey

San Francisco’s Department of Building Inspection (DBI) says that a September 15 deadline spurred a rush of building owners scrambling to prove that their “soft-story” properties will soon comply with seismic safety rules.

However, nearly 500 structures still stand in peril.

The city defines a soft story building as:

A wood-frame building [...] where the first story is substantially weaker and more flexible than the stories above due to lack of walls or frames at the first floor.

Typically, these buildings have parking or open commercial space such as restaurants or grocery stores on the first floor. This could make the first story ‘soft” and likely to lean or collapse in earthquakes.

A 2013 ordinance established a timetable for building owners to retrofit soft-story buildings or face potential liens on their property.

September 15 was the deadline for owners of tier-three buildings—i.e., three-story buildings with between five and 15 units—to submit plans for a retrofit and begin the permitting process.

At the beginning of August, some 1,450 properties hadn’t yet bothered to get the ball rolling, leading DBI director Tom Hui to fret that “code enforcement will be a nightmare” if the deadline passes with so many delinquent properties.

But the looming cutoff spurred most of the dawdlers. By the time September 14 rolled around, the number of unaccountables had shrunk to 769.

A textbook example of the perils of soft story construction.
A textbook example of the perils of soft-story construction following the Loma Prieta quake.
Photo by J.K. Nakata, U.S. Geological Survey

DBI spokesperson Bill Strawn told Curbed SF that a burst of last-minute plans and permit applications kept the city’s soft-story team busy all day Friday.

By late afternoon the number was down to some 600. And Strawn says that by day’s end the final figure came out to 484 missing-in-action buildings.

That adds up to a touch less than 14 percent of the 3,464 properties the city had its eye on initially. Those building owners who sent in their paperwork on time have until September 15, 2019 to complete retrofitting work.

By September 15 of next year, owners of tier-four buildings—”any building containing ground floor commercial uses or any building in a mapped liquefaction zone”must have their own applications submitted, the last of the city’s soft-story structures to have their number come up.

As for those buildings still unaccounted for, the city will soon place warning signs on the properties deeming them seismically unsafe. Fines and liens will follow for those who continue to hold out.