When Christopher Dahl felt a small earthquake rattle his Civic Center residential hotel a few weeks ago, a bolt of dread seized him — he fully expects the 1916 brick building to collapse in a heap of rubble during a large temblor.
"I would either be dead because the building collapsed or out of the building," Dahl said of a major earthquake. "Every day, the clock ticks that little bit closer to the next big one."
The Civic Center Hotel is one of more than 1,800 old, mostly brick buildings scattered around San Francisco that can literally fall apart during a major earthquake. Their walls can crack and fall outward — like dominos — crushing people on the streets below or causing the building to collapse.
In 1992, city officials passed an ordinance requiring them to be seismically retrofitted by Feb. 15, 2006, but about 280 still have yet to meet the requirement, putting hundreds or perhaps thousands of city residents at serious risk during a major quake, according to The City’s Department of Building Inspection. Such buildings were responsible for deaths during the 1989 Loma Prieta quake and the 2003 San Simeon quake.
The City Attorney’s Office has filed a lawsuit against the owners of the Civic Center Hotel claiming they have failed to seismically upgrade the building and certify its sprinkler system. The office has filed complaints in 10 other instances of buildings that have not met the unreinforced masonry building ordinance, or UMB as it is known, and is investigating about 85 others.
"The Civic Center Hotel has refused to comply with building, health and fire codes," said Matt Dorsey, a spokesman for the City’s Attorney’s Office. "The potential damages could total millions of dollars, but the primary concern is the safety of the residents. The City’s been left no option but to litigate."
The hotel, which is home to about 150 people, is owned by the pension trust fund of a plumber’s union, U.A. Local 38. U.A. officials did not return a call for comment Monday. The union has said it wants to tear the building down and possibly erect a new building on the site.
To dramatize their safety concerns, Dahl and other residents recently staged a protest outside the Moscone Center during the celebrations of the 100-year anniversary of the 1906 earthquake. They wore shirts with fake blood spattered on them and laid on the ground to simulate a building collapse.
"All we want is five minutes to get out of the building in an earthquake," Dahl firstname.lastname@example.org