We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, nearly 1.5 million people used their mobile devices to visit our sites.
Already a subscriber?
Wow! You read a lot!
Reading enhances confidence, empathy, decision-making, and overall life satisfaction. Keep it up! Subscribe.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
Until next month, you can always look over someone's shoulder at the coffee shop.
Already a subscriber?
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, we posted 390 stories about the fire. And they were shared nearly 137,000 times.
Already a subscriber?
Supporting the community that supports us.
Obviously you value quality local journalism. Thank you.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
We miss you already! (Subscriptions start at just 99 cents.)
Already a subscriber?

The "Follow This Story" feature will notify you when any articles related to this story are posted.

When you follow a story, the next time a related article is published — it could be days, weeks or months — you'll receive an email informing you of the update.

If you no longer want to follow a story, click the "Unfollow" link on that story. There's also an "Unfollow" link in every email notification we send you.

This tool is available only to subscribers; please make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.


Please note: This feature is available only to subscribers; make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

Brad Farmerie expected the worst when he pulled up to The Thomas Restaurant in downtown Napa following last Sunday’s powerful earthquake.

“It’s bad,” read the text message Farmerie received from one of his employees, as the executive chef was busy assessing damage to his own home.

Farmerie found the three-story restaurant he leads at 813 Main St. in a shambles. Dozens of shattered wine and liquor bottles littered the floor and water spewed from broken pipes. The elevator was stuck, trapping a janitor who had to be freed by firefighters.

Stone chunks the size of watermelons had rained down from the building behind the restaurant and tumbled down a stairway into the basement.

“I thought we wouldn’t open for a long time,” Farmerie recalled last week.

But in fact, the first-floor bar reopened that night, and by Monday evening, full food and beverage service had been restored. The disaster that Farmerie feared instead turned out to be a relatively minor setback, most likely because of seismic upgrades on the century-old building.

The Thomas and the square block of mostly historic buildings on which it is situated illuminates a stark portrait of the benefits of bringing buildings up to current seismic standards, as well as the potential downside of not doing so. In contrast, three buildings on Brown Street behind the Thomas have been red-tagged, meaning they are now too dangerous to enter. City officials said they were among the last buildings in Napa awaiting seismic upgrades.

City officials consider the buildings such a threat that they banned entry to several surrounding buildings, including one where Rick Molinari operates a cafe.

He was in the process of opening the cafe, called Molinari’s, on Monday when an inspector shut the building, even though it suffered no apparent damage after recently undergoing a seismic retrofit.

“I’m frustrated because the owner on the other side of me didn’t do his job,” Molinari said.

In 1986, California mandated that local governments identify unreinforced masonry buildings. But how cities approached the problem was up to them. The result, experts say, has been a patchwork of regulations and mixed results in gaining compliance for what most consider to be a matter of urgent public safety.

In Sonoma County, as many as 170 structures in the unincorporated area alone could present a safety risk because of their use of unreinforced masonry — brick, stone or cinder blocks mortared together, largely without supporting steel rods required for decades by building codes. Inspectors were fanning out across the county last week to assess damage and report any new safety concerns.

Most Wine Country cities, pressed by the necessity to bring their buildings up to code and a more recent push to save historic downtown buildings, have made quicker progress than unincorporated areas in shoring up their unreinforced structures.

The magnitude-6.0 earthquake in Napa, striking as close as it did to the 25th anniversary of the devastating Loma Prieta temblor, may prove to be another galvanizing moment for communities that exist in earthquake zones nationwide, said Melvyn Green, a structural engineer in Torrance who consults with agencies statewide.

“What we come up with here, with this experience, will be added to” seismic safety codes in cities across the nation that are grappling with the issue, Green said.

Napa passed an ordinance in 2006 that required owners of buildings deemed hazardous to complete seismic retrofits by the summer of 2009. All but a handful met the deadline. City officials identified the three buildings on Brown Street owned by Napa attorney Brian Silver as among those that have yet to be upgraded.

Silver on Friday said he purchased the building at the corner of Brown and Third streets, which originally was constructed in 1904, in 1975. The current tenants include a bail bond agency and a watchmaker. Silver also has an office upstairs. He said he lost tenants after the city required him to post a notice inside the building that it does not meet current seismic standards.

Silver also purchased the adjacent Brown Street buildings that formerly housed Napa City Hall and the Police Department.

He said he was waiting to retrofit his Brown Street properties until after he had acquired all three buildings and added another floor to create a grand building modeled after a Masonic Temple the city tore down to put in a parking lot.

“I want to make it a very magnificent building that will be a very great enhancement to the downtown,” he said.

Still, Silver said the buildings in their current state pose no threat to surrounding property.

“Right now it looks bad, but up to now no one has died from an earthquake in Napa,” he said. “It (last week’s earthquake) was relatively minor and not an imminent danger.”

Napa’s ordinance specifies that buildings that failed to meet the 2009 deadline would be considered a public nuisance, dangerous and subject to being vacated or torn down. But the city apparently did not seek any of those enforcement penalties against Silver.

Juliana Inman, a Napa city councilwoman and architect who helped draft the city’s ordinance, said officials tried to get Silver to bring the buildings up to code. But she also described the city’s reluctance to take punitive action out of concern the result could lead to the destruction of historic structures.

In the 1970s, the city lost a number of historic structures to redevelopment, and that experience made officials wary of pressing too hard, she said.

“I think we’ve been too soft, but I understand why,” Inman said.

In light of the earthquake, the debate now is whether city officials put historical preservation ahead of public safety, and individual property owner rights over the concerns of neighbors.

“What has become really evident in this event is that someone may choose to be difficult coming into compliance, and it’s not just them and their renters and their tenants who are affected. It’s also those around them,” Napa Mayor Jill Techel said Friday.

She added, “We were trying to gain compliance and using eminent domain and condemnation as a last resort. Having the experience we had last week, I think we would respond differently now.”

State lawmakers have been reluctant to dictate how local governments should address the problem of unsafe buildings, given varying economic realities and proximity to earthquake risk, said Danielle Hutchings Mieler, an earthquake and hazards coordinator for the Association of Bay Area Governments.

She said Napa’s experience demonstrates that the state needs to do whatever it takes to address buildings that clearly pose a deadly threat from an earthquake.

“Whether that means strengthening state law or applying pressure on cities, I’m not sure,” Hutchings Mieler said.

She floated one idea whereby the state could establish “seismic ratings” of buildings that could be posted for the public, similar to those used by public health departments as a way of assessing food safety.

As it is, cities risk liability from enacting ordinances they later fail to enforce.

Inman predicted that Napa’s responsibility in the wake of the earthquake “will have to be tested in the courts,” and that became apparent Friday when the City Council met in closed session to discuss what the mayor called a threat of litigation.

Techel said the threat came from Michael Holcomb, who owns the Brown Street building where Molinari runs his cafe. Holcomb could not immediately be reached Friday, but his attorney wrote via email that he has not filed any legal action or threatened to sue the city.

“We have been working cooperatively with city staff to get Michael Holcomb’s buildings reopened and the safety and damage concerns caused by the unstable adjacent building rectified as quickly as possible,” attorney Kevin Teague wrote.

Holcomb also owns two buildings on Main Street that were hit with red tags last week because of their proximity to the damaged Brown Street buildings owned by Silver.

On the one hand, Silver commended the city for having patience with him over the years. In the aftermath of the quake, however, he accused city officials of making an about-face and blaming him for the city’s inaction in achieving compliance with its retrofit regulations.

“They’re trying to deflect that criticism onto me as a scapegoat,” he said.

Napa’s municipal emergency abatement code gives city officials authority to take immediate action, without warning, against any code violations that are deemed to pose an imminent or immediate danger to persons or property.

Inman said the city should use the provisions against Silver.

“I believe the city manager has the power to do it now,” she said.

City officials statewide generally have been reluctant to go after problem property owners for failing to make seismic upgrades, preferring instead to try and coax them into making the necessary changes.

Green, the architect in Torrance, said the city of Los Angeles’ seismic retrofit program, which was implemented in the 1980s, has been an overwhelming success, resulting in 8,000 renovated buildings. An additional 2,000 were demolished.

But Green said the city is still dueling it out in court with two or three owners who are unwilling to go with the program.

“No city, even if it’s in their best interest, will be anxious to go through that process,” Green said.

The city of St. Helena used the approach of helping building owners qualify for a 20 percent investment tax credit in exchange for them upgrading the structures. The result was 100 percent compliance over the decade the program was in place, according to Cindy Heitzman, who headed the city’s building department. She’s now executive director of the California Preservation Foundation.

“There are so few financial incentives to do this work,” Heitzman said.

State lawmakers have passed a bill that would give property owners a 20 percent tax credit to help defray the cost of retrofitting historic buildings. Assembly Bill 1999 is now awaiting the governor’s signature.

“This is an incredible opportunity to provide needed funding to do seismic safety and make other improvements to buildings,” Heitzman said.

Green, who participated in a conference call with Napa officials last week, said that retrofitting isn’t meant to ward off damage to buildings.

“The goal is to hold things in place and let people get out of the building and make sure people on the sidewalks are reasonably protected,” he said.

He said the retrofitted buildings in downtown Napa appeared to perform reasonably well by that standard, although he questioned what the outcome might have been had the quake occurred during the day, and not in the middle of the night when nobody was around.

However, Green said damage to what Napa locals refer to as the Alexandria building on the corner of Brown and Second streets, and to the historic Hall of Justice across the street, suggest that retrofit standards may need updating. Both structures have undergone seismic upgrades but both suffered significant damage and have been red-tagged.

“Maybe it leads to changes for future retrofits,” Green said.

For now, the building that is home to the Thomas Restaurant may serve as the model for such upgrades. Last week, Napa developer Steve Hasty showed off the retrofit he did to the structure after he bought it from Muriel Fagiani in 2008.

Overlooking Veterans Park and the tidal river that snakes through town, 813 Main St. is among the city’s most storied addresses, playing host to an earlier incarnation of the Thomas Restaurant, a boardinghouse and then Fagiani’s bar. But after Muriel Fagiani’s sister was brutally murdered in the bar in 1974, she sealed the building up like a tomb. Generations of Napans peered into the clouded windows with a sense of macabre fascination.

Hasty convinced Fagiani to part with the building for $1.5 million prior to her death. His desire to bring the building back to life was met with a healthy dose of skepticism in Napa, given its condition and what it would take to bring it up to current safety standards.

But Hasty said last week that he was determined to honor Fagiani’s legacy and to also “do the right thing” for his neighbors and the city of Napa. He said he spent $1 million on the seismic upgrades, which include floor-to-ceiling steel columns.

“When you lose something because of inaction, everyone in Napa loses,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

Show Comment