Fault-y Towers: Don't Mention the Core!

The initial Metro Century City seismological studies were released in October. To nobody's surprise, they showed that it would be "impossible" for Metro to build a station along Santa Monica Boulevard.
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The initial Metro Century City seismological studies were released in October. To nobody's surprise, they showed that it would be "impossible" for Metro to build a station along Santa Monica Boulevard, but "perfectly safe" to build the station on Constellation, a few hundred feet to the South.

Not being a structural engineer, geologist or seismologist, I was nonetheless able to report in these pages (or, better said, at this URL) well over five months ago:

We're also going to see that the Santa Monica fault line -- yes, that's right, the one with a recurrence rate of once every 7500 years or so -- will pose a serious risk and serious construction challenges. This will have the dual result of raising the cost for construction along Santa Monica to a level which will far surpass the Constellation route, which is now projected to cost at least $60 million more. And it will raise major safety issues, as well as doomsday earthquake disaster scenarios.

The irony here is rich, to say the least, considering all the Constellation advocates who called Beverly Hills "alarmist" and "hysterical" when the potential safety concerns of tunneling under a high school -- with both oil fields and its own fault -- were initially brought up.

But before you call me Nostradamus, what I didn't predict was the elevation of the West Beverly Hills Lineament to the northern portion of the Newport-Inglewood fault line, at least the "inferred" extension according to Metro's "independent experts."

Nothing against the good individuals who were paid by Metro, but I just happen to have a natural-born skepticism when it comes to paid EIR experts. Even Metro Board Director, LA County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, likened the Metro report to a professional wrestling match, where you know who's going to win before the match begins. I'm not sure that I'd characterize myself as a cynic by nature, but whether it's the "world-class experts" paid by cell-phone companies to prove that cell phone usage doesn't cause brain-cancer, the "panel of renowned researchers" hired by corn collectives who conclude that high fructose corn syrup is the same thing as sugar, or the "respected scientists" on the payroll of big oil companies who use data to dispute global warming, I can't help but have my doubts when panels of experts make the exact conclusions that most benefit their patrons.

While the conclusions from Metro's panel of experts just happen to suit Metro's Century City subway needs to a tee (as well as the needs of the donors to the politicians who control Metro, as reported by the LA Weekly), there may be consequences from the report which I came nowhere near predicting, thereby destroying my Nostradamian credentials, and which may just show that every cloud really does have a silver lining.

Indeed, Oct. 19, the date the Metro technical report was released, could turn out to be Westside homeowners' groups Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Chanukah, Kwanzaa and Festivus all rolled up into one.

And it's all thanks to Metro's experts, as well as Messrs. Alquist and Priolo.

Alfred Alquist and Paul Priolo were the legislators responsible for the Alquist Priolo Special Studies Zone Act, passed in the early 70s under Governor Reagan. In short, the legislation severely limits building construction in earthquake-prone zones, now known as "Alquist-Priolo zones," which are classified as such by the state geological survey.

According to Metro's expert panel, the faults they've discovered in Century City would meet the criteria for the Alquist-Priolo zones. What's more, it's not just the Century City area. It could be the entire length of the Santa Monica fault, which gets stronger as it wends its way west towards Westwood, Santa Monica and the Pacific Palisades.

Metro itself, perhaps realizing the ramifications of their efforts to get what they want at all costs, seems now to be trying to shy away from any unintended consequences. In a response to a series of articles from the Beverly Hills Courier, Metro attempts to compartmentalize and relativize the information from their own experts:

It is important to stress that both reports were prepared for purposes of planning the Westside Subway Extension and will be used in the preparation of the final environmental impact document for the project. All government agencies and private property owners can access and review the content with appropriate professional staff and/or consultants and decide if the information is needed for their own purposes.

Neither Metro or the Courier is in a position to advise other agencies or property owners on how to apply the information in these reports.

Not necessarily because the PR folks at Metro are inherently so poetic, but Metro's response actually brings to mind one of Goethe's most famous lines from Faust: "Die Geister, die ich rief, werd' ich nun nicht los." Or, to use the American paraphrase: "Can't put the genie back in that bottle anymore."

Denying the broader relevance of the seismic information to the region is both irresponsible and clueless, especially after the Oct. 19 Metro meeting where one of the Metro directors specifically asked one of the experts, Dr. Lucy Jones, if the panel's conclusions have implications beyond the subway. At that fateful meeting Dr. Jones very specifically answers that there are potentially tremendous implications for all construction within the zone, and she discusses prospective building limitations. Perhaps Steve Hymon, Metro's PR guru, who wrote the response to the Courier and who also elsewhere denied that the Metro panel's conclusions would have the effect of limiting development in the area, missed that part of the meeting. If he did, here's a convenient link for him to catch up with Dr. Jones's remarks (fast-forward to about 27:45 in the video).

Another one of Metro's own experts, USC geology professor James Dolan himself takes an "all information is good information" approach: "I think anything we learn about active faults in L.A.is always good news, because it's absolutely critical that we fully understand the seismic threat facing us as residents of earthquake country." Neither does Dr. Dolan suggest that his panel's findings are limited to the narrow scope of Metro's decision on where to place a potential Century City subway station. Quite the opposite, Dolan also talks about impending building restrictions.

Rather than shirk responsibility and try to draw a circle around the information as if it only affects Metro, Metro should be forthright about the full consequences of the new seismic information. Rather than a "Don't know nothing about that" attitude, or, worse yet, a denial of their own experts' conclusions, Metro should come clean and express serious concerns about the safety of people in buildings along the fault lines they conjured.

Of course, Metro's trying to skirt the larger implications posed by the new seismic information raises the following question: Doesn't Metro care about the life-safety of non-commuters? Perhaps not, but other policy-makers ignore this information at their own risk and at the risk of the safety of the general public. It's not a question of "deciding if the information is needed" for any purposes. It's about ensuring the safety of the general public.

Because of this new geological information, and because of the serious potential life/safety dangers, the state, county and local authorities should demand more detailed field studies and should gather as much data as possible along the entire length of the fault line.

And here is where the homeowners' groups come in. For those of us that oppose overdevelopment in favor of low-rise, human-scale buildings, the initiation of an Alquist-Priolo zone is the silver lining. In a city which for so long has been tone-deaf to the needs of its residents and absolutely responsive to developers who solely in the name of profits want to build bigger, higher and faster, we have Messrs. Alquist and Priolo to thank for the upcoming limitations on development mandated by Metro's own experts. Because you can't build skyscrapers in an Alquist-Priolo zone. You can't build densely. And you can't build the kind of massive projects that would rise to the level of TOD (transit-oriented development).

Some transit advocates seem to like density, as do developers. For developers it means greater profits and for transit-advocates it means ridership, that all-important justification for transit dollars. Never mind if adding density to an area where transit efforts are making up for past deficiencies could bring us back to square one traffic-wise, or even behind that. Never mind if it negatively impacts the quality of life of the residents.

Thanks to Metro, we can now expect the opposite of TOD all along the newly mapped Santa Monica fault line. In another Faustian twist, TOD means "death" in German, and the opposite of death is life, isn't it? Maybe we can turn the Santa Monica fault line into a low-density, green beltway all the way from Century City to the sea. Yes, "the green beltway to the sea" has a nice ring to it.

And we also might see the scaling-back or elimination of controversial major developments planned in west Beverly Hills. The so-called 9900 Wilshire project, condo high-rises designed by Richard Meier and Michael Palladino, as well as the Beverly Hilton expansion, which was to feature a new Waldorf-Astoria hotel tower and two condo towers are both in Metro's pink zone, presumptively part of a future Alquist-Priolo zone.

And then there's the 37-story luxury condo-tower, which was planned for a plot directly contiguous to Beverly Hills High School. How can that possibly be built lying at the intersection of two fault lines, as we now know? (And for those of you wondering about why Beverly Hills would permit a 37-story tower to be built next to a school, the answer is: Beverly Hills wouldn't. The plot of land is in Los Angeles, which -- how shall I put it? -- has traditionally been less attuned to the welfare of Beverly Hills schoolchildren and more attuned to the hopes, dreams, wishes, desires and pocketbooks of the Century City developers).

While existing buildings may be grandfathered into new Alquist-Priolo zones and are not red-tagged, does this make them any safer? If we wouldn't allow them to be built now, should we by fiat deem them to be safe, just because we didn't know of the dangers at the time they were built? There are a whole lot of people occupying skyscrapers along Santa Monica Boulevard in Century City who have never heard of Alfred Alquist or Paul Priolo and who have no idea that they may be living on the edge, as it were, on a fault.

If for legal and/or practical reasons, these buildings can't be red-tagged, shouldn't we at least inform the unhappy inhabitants of those buildings of the potential dangers? California requires signs to be placed at the entrances of buildings warning about various chemicals and their potential dangers to those who would enter such buildings. Shouldn't, at the very least, similar warning signs be prominently placed at the entrances of existing high-rises all along the Santa Monica Boulevard fault line once the new Alquist-Priolo zone is established? Isn't fair warning the very least that we can do if we're really so concerned with the lives and safety of our residents?

Of course, the Santa Monica fault should hardly be the Southland's greatest concern. Metro's eminent experts, Drs. Jones and Dolan, have pointed out that the Puente Hills Fault, which cuts a swath across the downtown area, could have a tremendous, devastating and terrifying impact on downtown Los Angeles. As Dr. Jones said: "How do you get people to understand that Northridge was actually a little earthquake? Puente Hills would be so much worse than Northridge." Or as Dr. Dolan said about the Puente Hills fault: "This fault is in one of the worst places you could think of to put a fault of this size and geometry."

Shouldn't we take warning from these experts and devote serious resources to better mapping the Puente Hills Fault (not to mention other faults, some of which may be as yet unknown and undiscovered) and taking appropriate measures to get these areas declared Alquist-Priolo zones?

More importantly, shouldn't Los Angeles immediately end all TOD in the Downtown area and -- for the life/safety considerations of its residents -- stop densification in a region of potentially devastating earthquake impacts? Fans of TOD and density aren't going to want to hear it, but shouldn't the safety of our residents and the mitigation of a potentially cataclysmic seismic event take priority? Maybe the LA region just isn't meant to become a cluster of skyscrapers.

Beyond the life/safety considerations, for those who don't think that the Southland should become another Manhattan or Dubai, but should maintain its own identity, and for those who like light and air, the death of TOD, at least in Alquist-Priolo zones, would be good news, indeed.

It seems that Metro's geologists might actually be able to pull off something that has seemed all but impossible in the pay-to-play culture of overdevelopment in Los Angeles, where well-heeled and well-connected developers almost always seem to get whatever they want.

'Tis the season for all those homeowners' groups who have for years in vain opposed overdevelopment, and for whom the potential new Alquist-Priolo zones could very well turn out to be the gift that keeps on giving.

Thank you, Metro.

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