Berkeley council to address balcony safety after collapse

Remnants of beams from removed balconies show contrast between the condition of the wood from the collapsed balcony and the balcony it fell upon at the Library Gardens Apartments, in Berkeley, on Thursday, June 18, 2015. Six people died and seven were seriously injured in the early Tuesday morning accident. Photo: David Yee ©2015
Two balconies were removed from Library Gardens after a fatal accident that killed six and  injured seven in June. Photo: David Yee

The Berkeley City Council may vote next week to amend the municipal code in an effort to make local buildings safer following the fatal collapse in June of a wood-rotted fifth-floor balcony at Library Gardens.

The city pledged last month to consider the adoption of stricter rules related to building inspections following the accident at the downtown Berkeley apartment complex during a birthday celebration June 16. Six died and seven were injured as a result of the collapse. The Alameda County district attorney’s office has since launched an investigation and is considering the possibility of whether to file criminal charges.

The items on council’s action calendar at its July 14 meeting — the final one before summer recess — include amendments to the city’s municipal code suggested by the director of the planning department, along with two items from Councilman Jesse Arreguín. Arreguín is asking the city to consider requiring the steel reinforcement of balconies in all new construction, as well as a requirement to post signage on some balconies specifying their maximum weight capacity.

Berkeley planning director Eric Angstadt has suggested a slew of amendments to the municipal code, including three related “urgency ordinances” to the building code, housing code and Residential Rental Housing Safety Program. Under state law, urgency ordinances may be adopted immediately.


“Staff believes that immediate adoption of these proposed actions is needed for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health and safety in the City of Berkeley,” according to the staff report. “The purpose of the proposed technical local amendments is to provide a higher level of safety than is reflected in the adopted 2013 California Codes.”

The urgency ordinances relate to the construction of weather-exposed building elements, and would require the inspection and certification every five years of those building elements that are elevated. Staff has said previously that the balcony that collapsed, which had been significantly weakened by dry rot, appeared to have been built to comply with the specifications of the code.

The city does not currently have any laws that require the periodic inspection of balconies to ensure their structural integrity.

According to the staff report, “If adopted, these measures would impose more stringent standards upon the materials and building practices used in future construction of balconies and similar exterior building elements, and would require prompt and regular inspections of all such existing structures in Berkeley, helping to identify potentially hazardous conditions before a catastrophic collapse can occur.”

The new rules would require ventilation to be built into “Balconies, landings, decks, stairs and similar exterior projecting elements,” as well as the construction of an access panel beneath those elements to allow for inspection.

Those elements would need to be made of wood that could withstand weather, or treated to ensure that materials would be durable.

Angstadt said previously that the state would also need to sign off on proposed changes to the code before they could go into effect. Timothy Burroughs, a city spokesman, confirmed Tuesday that any changes would need to be filed with the California Building Standards Commission after adoption. The commission could potentially reject the changes if they “were not expressly marked and identified or the findings were not submitted,” but cannot, by law, evaluate their merits.

The city plans to consider as part of its next budget cycle whether it may need to add staff if that is deemed necessary to ensure that the new rules are followed. If additional staff is needed, the planning department will propose new fees to cover the cost.

Separately, Councilman Arreguín has asked council to write to the California Building Standards Commission to urge it to update the state code “to require steel reinforcement of balconies in all new balcony designs.” In the item, he asks the city manager and the Berkeley Housing Advisory Commission to consider the adoption of that requirement locally, with a report back within 60 days.

Arreguín’s item also requests periodic inspections of balconies in multi-unit rental housing. According to his office, he was working on the item prior to the city’s announcement that it would pursue the inspections.

The councilman, who represents downtown Berkeley’s District 4, has a second item on the agenda that would ask the owners of buildings with “wooden cantilevered balconies not supported by steel reinforcement” to provide a disclosure about them to tenants “regarding the fact that the balcony is not supported with steel reinforcement and specifying the maximum weight capacity of the balcony.”

He would also like the city manager to develop an ordinance that would require signage “either in the balcony area or in a visible location on the entrance to the balcony specifying the maximum weight capacity of the balcony.”

Related:
Berkeley balcony survivor is making ‘great progress’ (07.02.15)
Berkeley balcony passed inspection before collapse (07.01.15)
Library Gardens builder seeks to stop DA from examining balcony without it being present (06.30.15)
Irish consul general: J-1 visa student community a source of ‘great pride’ (06.26.15)
DA launches criminal investigation into balcony collapse (06.25.15)
‘Severely dry rotted’ timber found after balcony collapse; city plans to stiffen safety rules (06.23.15)
Church services held for balcony collapse victims (06.20.15)
Protesters demand halt on new construction in Berkeley (06.19.15)
No ‘smoking gun’ in Berkeley balcony design (06.19.15)
As students recover in hospitals, support grows for survivors, victims of balcony collapse (06.18.15)
Coroner releases autopsy results on balcony victims; first responders sought help for stress (06.18.15)
City posts documents from balcony collapse property (06.18.15)
People gather to remember victims of Berkeley balcony collapse (06.18.15)
Firm that built Berkeley complex has been fined, sued (06.18.15)
Support springs up for families, friends of deceased (06.17.15)
As Berkeley orders removal of second balcony, questions over quality of construction (06.17.15)
Berkeley building under scrutiny before balcony collapse (06.17.15)
Mayor, consul general, lay wreaths to honor 6 killed in Berkeley balcony collapse (06.16.15)
Six who died in Berkeley: Young students in their prime (06.16.15)
Six students killed in Berkeley balcony collapse identified (06.16.15)
Berkeley orders balcony removal after tragedy kills 6 (06.16.15)
Berkeley balcony collapse leaves 6 students dead (06.16.15)

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