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Hollywood faultHollywood fault
September 2013 Fault Line Splits Hollywood
Drama Swirls Over Quake-Zone Mapping for Los Angeles Development Project
The Hollywood fault, a 10-mile fracture running beneath the storied neighborhood, hasn't ruptured in at least 7,000 years. But it is causing plenty of upheaval on the surface.
The Millennium Hollywood project, planned for the lot in the foreground, would see two towers rise next to the Capitol Records building, seen in background. A potential fault line is complicating development plans.
The fault has sparked a battle over a $664 million residential and commercial tower project proposed for a site that may—or may not—have the fissure running through it. On one side are the site's developers, who say the fault concerns are overblown and a convenient issue for their critics on the other side, local residents opposed to the project's scale.
The uncertainty over the fault's location has also revealed a disconnect between state earthquake-safety law and local enforcement of that law.
"The way the system is set up doesn't provide very rigorous oversight over whether or not you're building in a dangerous area," said Lucy Jones, senior science adviser for risk reduction for the U.S. Geological Survey, referring to flexibility in local enforcement of safety standards and a lack of government resources.
Since 1972, California law has banned building directly on top of active earthquake faults capable of rupturing the surface. Such faults could rip buildings apart as the two sides of the fault slide past each other in a quake.
But state geologists, charged with mapping thousands of miles of active faults, still haven't mapped them all—including the Hollywood fault—which has left L.A. city officials to rely on older and less-detailed maps to make decisions about development.
The city isn't waiting for the state map to push ahead with a $2.5 billion development pipeline in Hollywood meant to transform the scruffy tourist destination into an urban oasis—a plan championed by new Mayor Eric Garcetti. The Millennium Hollywood project, with two sleek towers flanking the landmark Capitol Records building, is considered the crown jewel of that effort.
"It's taken 40 years for [the state] to get down here" and map, said Luke Zamperini, spokesman for the department of building and safety. "We have our own geologists.…We get a pretty good idea of what's going on."
Developers of the towers submitted an environmental-impact report to the city based on an old city map that showed the fault nearly half a mile from their site. A more recent but less detailed map used by a different city department shows the fault about 200 feet from the site.
John Parrish, the state's geologist, told city officials the fault may run through the site itself, and said the state map would be finished by early next year. This summer, the city council approved the project anyway.
"This is a matter of thousands of lives," said Robert P. Silverstein, the lawyer for a group of Hollywood-area neighborhood associations suing the city and developers to stop the project. "This is a fight to ensure that city hall cannot throw inconvenient laws and facts to the wind."
Mr. Silverstein said the city and developers knowingly ignored other studies showing the fault could run through the site, and provided initial geological testing that was inadequate.
Developers called the allegations "specious." City officials and developers insist the project will be safe and said L.A. won't allow development over a fault.
"This is a manufactured controversy driven by our opponents who would like to stop the project," said Philip Aarons, a founding partner of Millennium Partners, the developer.
Millennium's developers will be required to conduct more testing on the site before they can get building permits—as the state map would have likely required anyway—city officials and developers noted.
Mr. Silverstein says the additional testing wouldn't have happened without neighbors publicly raising concerns about the fault.
California has so far mapped 5,000 miles of active surface faults on 553 maps across the state—or about 60% of the known active surface faults. The maps create study zones around faults. If a development falls within that zone, the developer is required by law to conduct geological testing before building. The state has about 300 more maps to produce.
Some local governments, like Los Angeles, had their own fault-zoning programs, so California "focused its limited funding assets on other population areas," said Mr. Parrish, the state geologist. He said despite the situation in L.A., he believes most local governments are properly enforcing the law.
Local governments have to balance economic development with safety and can't be expected to put development on hold, said Richard McCarthy, head of the state's Seismic Safety Commission. "If the state map's not coming out for five years, that's a problem for local government," he said.
Many communities have produced their own maps while waiting for the state map, or turned to academic or federal government experts for mapping help, but the accuracy varies, seismic safety experts said.
Local officials also have leeway in making decisions about the extent of the geological testing. And, though the state recommends setting a building back at least 50 feet from a fault, local officials can permit developers to build closer to the fault. California, with thousands of active faults, as well as experience with large, devastating quakes, is considered advanced when it comes to earthquake safety regulations and building codes, compared to other quake-prone states.
Scientists believe the Hollywood fault last ruptured between 7,000 and 9,500 years ago—barely a long weekend on the geologic time scale—and say the fault is capable of unleashing a 7.0 magnitude quake.
From his office overlooking the site of his future project, with the Hollywood sign framed through a window, Mr. Aarons said he is optimistic about moving ahead, although two lawsuits filed against the project will delay his plans to break ground next year.
On Friday, opponents suing the Millennium project called for an ethics investigation into the city's head of building and safety, which issues construction permits, over a "possibly improper relationship" with developers. Opponents said the department head's son had an internship with the law firm representing the developer at city hall.
A spokesman for the department didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Even if a portion of the fault is found to cross the site, he said, the size of the nearly 4½-acre site allows him flexibility to build so the towers aren't on top of the fault—if it is there at all, he said.
"The Hollywood fault is somewhere," Mr. Aarons said. "I think people will feel better when they know where it is. I think I know where it isnt.