Thursday, March 17, 2011

1989: And the Bookshop Came Tumbling Down

This is the last of four articles looking back at the Loma Prieta Earthquake and its aftermath; it appeared in the Santa Cruz Comic News of December 9, 1989:

Bookshop Santa Cruz owner Neal Coonerty was just leaving a doctor's appointment in San Jose when the Loma Prieta quake shook him out of business. As the shaking began, Lois Mayer vaulted the store's front desk and dashed outside. Kelsey Ramage and Allen White, working in the basement, made their way up the back stairwell to the ground floor, where they encountered a co-worker who had just been tossed downstairs from the upper level. As Ramage helped evacuate the 20 or so customers out the back door, Seana Graham grabbed a flashlight and led a policeman downstairs, where another employee was huddled in shock beneath her desk in the darkened, glass-strewn basement office. At the same time, building owner Ron Lau was en route from Hawaii when his flight was turned around.

As I stumbled out of the offices of The Sun, just across Cedar Streeet, I saw clouds of dust rising from the Pacific Garden Mall. Gazing over at the Bookshop, where I had worked until the previous month, I prayed that the north wall had held. Even in small quakes, I had seen dust from the ancient mortar powdering the workstation at the back desk. Fellow employees recalled seeing waves of motion rolling through the bricks. Like most Californians, we regarded the prospect of the Big One with a certain fatalism, but whenever it hit, we hoped we were nowhere near that wall.

When it did, the top section of the wall fell north, crashing through the roof of the Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company next door, and killing Shawn McCormick and Robin Ortiz. Brittany Menriquez recalls that McCormick grabbed her hand and shouted "Come on!" just before the ceiling fell in. When she awoke, she found herself unable to move any part of her body but the four fingers of her right hand. " I remember I was trying to breathe, and I felt myself suffocating. I started falling back into being unconscious. I tried everything I could to keep myself awake, like just start screaming... and then I remember just accepting the fact that I was going to die, because I didn't think anyone was going to hear me." After 45 minutes, rescue workers reached Menriquez and she was taken away in an ambulance. She is still unable to feel anything in her right leg.

Over the last seven weeks, both the Bookshop and the Roasting company have struggled back into business. The Roasting Company resumed operations in their undamaged Metro Center location once that portion of the mall had reopened. The Bookshop took a more tortuous route. The building was condemned the day after the quake, and Coonerty fought for weeks for the right to recover his inventory. When permission was finally granted, scores of volunteers helped to remove, dust and box the $650,000 worth of books. Hundreds of others had gathered in front of Coonerty's home and donated used books for a "Friends of the Bookshop " party on November 11. Finally, local unions donated labor to help erect Phoenix Pavillion G, where the store is now located. Employees and electricians worked right up to the wire in order to reopen the morning after Thansgiving, when hordes of patrons found their old haunts painstakingly recreated.

On Monday, November 27, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article headlined "Santa Cruz Knew Of Quake Death Risk." The story told of Dave Steeves' proposed 1987 ordinance requiring reinforcement of unsafe buildings, and the opposition of mall merchants, including then-Downtown Association chair Neal Coonerty. A companion story, "Building Owners Considered Seismic Safety Too Expensive," told how Ron Lau had hired a structural engineer to examine the Bookshop's building and draw up plans for retrofitting it, though those plans had not yet been implemented by the time of the quake.

Ron Lau has declined comment on the Chronicle stories on the advice of his attorney. I called Neal Coonerty and asked for his reaction. "It was an easy target," he asserted. "Like I told the reporter, there's probably a half a dozen ways that you could make 17 a safer road. and maybe that should be a priority; that people should step up and do that immediately and save lives...What I tried to explain to him, which obviously didn't make his article was that I felt the economic burden of the retrofitting couldn't fall on the downtown property owners, that they couldn't compete with 41st Avenue, and that if it was state mandated it should be state funded. That ended up being the direction that the city went, and of course Deukmajian vetoed it on September 15th.

"At that point, if we had gone gung ho and implemented the entire Dave Steeves plan,... it wouldn't have changed anything that happened...Even if it had passed the moment it was first brought up , they would have done the survey, they would have identified the buildings, they would have reported that,... nobody would have been as far along as Ron was along on the building..I'm certain that it wouldn't have prevented the situation that happened... In fact, a number of the buildings that were retrofitted also came down, they were damaged enough to come down.... We were just all very fortunate that there weren't more people injured.

"You know it was a difficult article... he was right, in the sense that, when it came up in front of the Downtown Commision, I expressed that it was a very difficult economic burden for downtown merchants... older dowtowns have a very, very difficult time competing against suburban shopping centers. They always have; witness downtown Watsonville."

Regarding Lau's plans for retrofitting, Coonerty said, "once that proposal came up, he actually was moving on it. He had decided that he was going to spend the money and he was going to do it... The inference that he was 'hot and cold,' well that's only half the story. As they got into the plans, and the amount of money came up... he came up to me one time and wanted to know if I could come up with half the money to do the retrofit, which was quite a bit. As it got clarified, and the amount of money came up, well, he was trying to struggle with the financing, so maybe it was 'hot and cold' because of that...If the earthquake had hit a year from now, and all that was in place, he would be looked at as a prudent businessperson who did the right thing. Right now, his case is legally much more tenuous, because all it does is show he knew it was dangerous, and therefore it can be used against him..."

Dave Steeves, however, is having none of it. "I would say that within a year's time of that ordinance being passed, that building being, you know, on the top of the list, that they would have to have had their engineer evaluation and be started on their retrofit. There's always been the availability of cities putting together their own bond issues" to finance seismic upgrades. "It wasn't as though this was just something out of the blue. I had taken ordinances from the city of L.A., and Long Beach, and Santa Rosa, and Palo Alto, and took the parts that were pertinent to our city and compiled them into an ordinance of our own.

"It's like Ron's building; he had the option there, if he felt he couldn't afford to do it, he could always lop off the top floor. That's what has been done in a lot of cities. That's what should have been done in the Hotel Metropole, same thing. You've got a three story building with a one story building beside it. Just take those top floors off, if they're hazardous. I'm interested in saving people, not in saving buildings.

On November 28, the Santa Cruz City Council passed an ordinance similar to Steeves' 1987 proposal, requiring building owners to upgrade hazardous buildings. "[ My ordinance ] was a little more restrictive," notes Steeves. "Now, the reason I wrote it restrictive, knowing that I'd have to go through various hearings, with various bodies... whenever you have a controversial, unpalatable ordinance like this, it's going to get watered down. Now, if you go in with a very weak type ordinance, you play heck trying to get it upgraded...They didn't even give it a chance, they didn't even give it a fair hearing. It didn't even go before any review body , so that there could be input, or anything like that.

"Lookit, every building that we retrofitted downtown survived, survived well. And they did not go into any great tremendous expense, or anything like that...we have retrofits that went anywhere from five thousand to fifty thousand, and that's the extent of it... There's no sense having a pretty town," concludes Steeves, "if it's going to fall down on you."

Understandably, Coffee Roasting Company owner Colleen Crosby is even less sanguine with the situation. She was never informed that the wall adjacent to her building was unstable. "I don't think that there's any excuse for not making a public warning. And I do feel that there's a responsibility...Water conservation by the city was so directed towards making sure it would occur that we actually had someone come out and inspect our toilet to make sure that we were conserving water in it. I'm wondering why they wouldn't come out and warn people of imminent hazards like that... Do you know that in San Francisco, on the deeds of property, people state the status of their building, whether or not it's an imminent hazard... so that if people have children, or any human beings interested in saving their life could do so...I just wonder; how much knowledge did they have and when did they have it?

"I have learned," muses Crosby, "that you can question people for the mistakes they make, and hold them accountable for their actions, but you can't play God and look into their souls. There's some kind of term for that... I think it's called tough love."

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