Photo by Sam Hodgson
San Diego State University
Love Library, the main library at San Diego State University, could collapse in the event of a major earthquake and threaten life, according to state records.
Despite that level of risk, people continue to flow through the building every day. University officials say it’s safe to use, but are now studying how to reduce the risk of collapse.
The library is one of nearly 180 public university buildings in California that are in use even though they have been judged dangerous to occupy during a major earthquake — including other libraries, classroom buildings, student apartments, gyms, a hospital, and even a child care center, a California Watch investigation has found.
While some significant earthquake risks have emerged only recently, university officials have known about seismic problems with the majority of their dangerous buildings for five years or more. In some cases, they’ve known for decades.
California Watch reviewed thousands of pages of documents and audits and interviewed seismic safety experts about both of the state’s public university systems.
Among the findings:
- Dozens of new buildings have been built ahead of seismic safety projects that have languished. Projects with outside support, such as those receiving partial funding from donors, tend to get preference for state funding.
- CSU policies don’t mandate fixing the most dangerous buildings first. A building at CSU Fullerton got funding for retrofitting in 1999, even though it was ranked 20th on the system’s list of hazardous structures. Eight of the buildings that were ahead of it remain to be fixed.
- Rigid rules prohibit UC and CSU officials from using certain types of construction money on seismic repairs. Instead, both systems make due with limited pots of money for safety upgrades.
The state’s public universities have made progress toward protecting safety on campus. The vast majority of buildings are expected to pose only a small risk of causing injuries or deaths in a major quake.
Since 1979, the UC system has spent more than $1 billion shoring up seismically unsafe buildings, according to a university estimate.
The CSU system has spent more than $480 million on seismic projects since 1987, a California Watch analysis of university documents found.
But it has fallen far behind on some buildings, records show. Eighteen years after CSU began cataloguing its seismically dangerous structures, three liberal arts buildings at CSU Long Beach remain unfixed and occupied, posing a risk to the 1,500 students and faculty who pass through their doors on a typical school day.
CSU Long Beach has retrofitted four other buildings that posed high seismic risks. But instead of making repairs to its three liberal arts buildings, the university used state money to build other projects, including $120 million for two new science buildings and $32 million for a library addition.
At San Diego State, university officials are just starting to study how to reduce the earthquake risk of Love Library. The part at risk of collapse is the older section, a white rectangular building west of the university’s iconic dome.
“We are still in the early planning stages of evaluating how we are going to address the seismic issues,” SDSU spokeswoman Gina Jacobs said. “We are currently pricing the options and once that is decided we will be submitting a capital request for the funding.”
University officials have known about the seismic concerns at Love Library since at least 2006, according to state records. In the event of a major earthquake, structural twisting from a major earthquake could damage “brittle perimeter columns” and cause the building to collapse.
Jacobs said the chance of that actually happening, however, is low compared to other places in the state at greater risk for large earthquakes.
No public university in California, for example, has more seismically unsafe structures than UC Berkeley.
The campus, part of which sits on the active Hayward fault, has 71 occupied buildings that engineers say would sustain significant structural damage and endanger people’s lives in a major quake.
Despite an aggressive effort to repair some buildings, UC Berkeley officials sent construction crews to remodel other unsafe buildings without making needed seismic repairs. And they moved offices for retired professors and research labs from a building that was considered low-risk to a structure deemed a higher risk.
The recent quakes in Chile and Haiti serve as a reminder that many buildings are vulnerable, even in a state with strict building codes.
But seismic fixes for some of California’s campus buildings are at least a decade away.
Universities leave most risky buildings occupied, even though the structures could cause injuries or deaths in the event of a major earthquake. Vacating buildings would mean a decrease in the number of students who can enroll, said Thomas Kennedy, chief of architecture and engineering for the CSU system.
“You’re balancing off a series of competing needs,” Kennedy said. “Is there a risk in driving a car? You bet. But I drive every day. Is there a risk going into some buildings? Yes, there is. If we do that (close the buildings), that means we teach fewer students. Do we want to cut 50,000 students? Or do we want to go forward?”
No Plans to Move Faster on Seismic Repairs
Officials say they would like to correct existing structures faster, but they can only afford to do a few projects at a time. The state budget crisis means no new projects proposed since 2009 have received funding.
In the meantime, students and staff are using 28 CSU buildings even though they could collapse in a major earthquake. Love Library at San Diego State is one of those buildings.
An additional 38 occupied CSU structures are less likely to collapse, but would pose serious risk to life because of falling hazards, records show.
In the UC system, about 10 structures that could collapse in a big earthquake remain in use. More than 100 other buildings statewide are occupied even though they would pose hazards.
University House, which used to house the chancellor of the University of California San Diego, could partially collapse, but has been vacated.
There is no estimate for the total cost of future seismic repairs. But a few figures provide context. The CSU system expects to fund 15 retrofit projects in the next five years at a cost of more than $500 million.
The timeline could face further delays because the projects rely in part on state general obligation bond financing, and no new bond measure has been proposed.
Universities Must Seek Seismic Safety Funds
The UC system owns more than 5,000 structures mostly built during the 1950s and 1960s. The CSU system includes about 2,200 buildings, more than half of which are at least 30 years old.
While the buildings were constructed to resist earthquakes at the time, engineers now know that some of these structures are dangerous because they were built before earthquake engineering evolved.
The UC system adopted a policy in 1975 requiring chancellors to develop plans for fixing buildings that could fail in a major quake. The CSU system created a similar policy in 1993.
But you won’t find seismic projects filling up the construction priority list.
That’s partly because universities don’t actually make seismic safety their number-one concern. They have other construction priorities. They want to build modern labs and accommodate growing enrollment.
“In a perfect world, we’d love to do everything,” said Kennedy, the chief of architecture and engineering for the CSU system.
Dangerous Buildings Not Always Given Funding Priority
Even though the CSU system has a method for prioritizing seismically deficient buildings, the most dangerous ones in the system don’t always get fixed first.
A 1997 internal audit found that the university had repaired some lower-priority structures before the most hazardous buildings.
California Watch found that the pattern has continued. Universities got funding for at least 10 lower-priority seismic projects ahead of other buildings that engineers identified as urgently in need of repairs.
One that skipped ahead in line was CSU Fullerton’s humanities and social sciences building, which ranked 20th on a list of 25 dangerous structures in 1999.
Yet that year, the building got state funding for repairs ahead of the 19 other, riskier structures, such as Humboldt State University’s theatre arts building, which was rated seventh on the list.
Situated on the east end of a tree-filled quad at CSU Fullerton, the cream-colored humanities building rises six stories high. The structure hasn’t lost its 1969 look. Its façade bears resemblance to a steam radiator, with long vertical columns spaced evenly apart.
Despite its vintage appearance, the humanities building has modern safety capabilities. A $1.4 million strengthening project added new exterior shear walls designed to counteract earthquake loads.
Meanwhile, Humboldt State University has not fixed the theatre arts building, which has been a known earthquake collapse risk since at least 1999.
Private Donations Play Major Role in Renovations
Some building officials from different universities acknowledge projects with partial outside funding move to the front of the line for state money because the state can get new construction at a discount.
California Watch found several cases where buildings that leveraged funding from donors won state construction money ahead of seismic retrofits that had been on the radar for years.
While the donor-funded buildings did not necessarily cause campuses to delay seismic repairs, the externally supported projects certainly progressed faster.
Kennedy said donors sometimes make offers to help pay for specific projects, giving the state a coupon for discounted construction — and that’s something universities and the Legislature pay attention to.
“If someone is trying to balance something out and says, ‘I’ll give you $10 million to consider this,’ that has to be taken into consideration,” he said.
He could not recall a single time that a donor gave money for seismic repairs, or that a university launched a capital campaign around a seismic repair project.
VOSD staff writer Keegan Kyle contributed local reporting to this story.
California Watch is a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting with offices in the Bay Area and Sacramento.
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