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Retrofitting of first of Catholic schools in San Francisco is under way

09 8.31.17_Seismic.St.Anne PAGESt. Anne of the Sunset grammar school is undergoing a retrofit that will keep the students out of the school building until November. (Photo by Valerie Schmalz/Catholic San Francisco)

August 31, 2017
Valerie Schmalz

If you drive by St. Anne of the Sunset, you can’t miss the crane, the 14 portable classrooms crowding a large portion of the school yard – and the big green sign announcing “St. Anne School Seismic Retrofit – Ensuring Student Safety for Generations!”

“It just ensures the integrity of this building,” said principal Tom White of the $4.1 million seismic retrofit of the three-story building, one of four Catholic school retrofits in San Francisco that will be completed by year’s end, according to the Archdiocese of San Francisco’s Real Property Support Corporation’s director of building and construction Steve Kalpakoff.

An ordinance passed by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 2014 required that all private schools be evaluated according to an engineering standard of life-safety–or that everyone in the building can escape in the event of a significant earthquake, said David Finn of David Finn Architects, project manager for the St Anne Seismic Retrofit project.

The engineering standards are far more stringent than those under which the buildings were built. They are similar to code for new buildings, but do not include required compliance with fire and electrical and other portions of the building codes, Finn said. The reports on each building will be available after November, when they are due at the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection. The ordinance, which applies to all private schools in San Francisco, does not require any retrofits.

However, the Archdiocese of San Francisco is encouraging all affected schools to retrofit to the life-safety standard of the ordinance. It commissioned additional seismic engineering reports exceeding the city’s requirements on each school building, with recommended structural changes and costs, and delivered them to pastors and principals between March-June 2016.

According to the archdiocese, the buildings remain safe to inhabit. However, each of the 24 San Francisco Catholic elementary schools has some recommended seismic retrofit, some significant, and some less significant. The aggregate estimated cost of the retrofits totals $70-80 million.

St. Thomas the Apostle, St. Stephen and St. Philip the Apostle schools were all expected to have completed retrofits by year’s end, with most of the work done by the time school resumed in late August. In addition, Holy Name of Jesus School will have completed Phase 1 of a three-phase retrofit, and will have renovated bathrooms and added ramps for handicap accessibility.

One of the significant costs of the retrofits is that any new construction triggers federal mandated handicapped accessibility regulations, so, for instance, St. Anne is installing an elevator.

“We’re pleased these four schools have undertaken their seismic retrofit,” said Jesuit Father John Piderit, vicar for administration and moderator of the curia. “In order to have begun this summer, they had to have their funding and plans ready by December 2016. There was a very short window for them to get things organized and they did it,” Father Piderit said.

While St. Anne survived past earthquakes without damage, including the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, the seismic engineering report found if the quake had zigged instead of zagged, the school’s structure could have collapsed upon itself because the floors are wood but the walls are concrete and they would respond at different rates of movement, according to Finn. “Who’s going to take that risk?” White asked, adding the entire community who he termed “phenomenal” said, “Let’s do it. Let’s sacrifice. Do it and get it over with.”

The St. Anne retrofit, among other structural changes, will include reinforced shear walls, but also threaded steel dowels at least every four feet, connecting floors and walls. The roof and foundation will also be tied to the supporting interior and exterior walls. In addition, three heavily reinforced concrete shear walls will be built into the structure from the ground to roof to stiffen the building, said project manager Finn.

The 2014 ordinance was in response to city-commissioned The Private Schools Earthquake Safety Group report, issued in 2013, which said 33 percent of private school buildings had characteristics that indicated poor performance in future earthquakes and that there was insufficient information on 24 percent of buildings.

Almost all of the city Catholic schools were built after the 1906 earthquake and fire which leveled large portions of the city, with most of today’s schools 60 to 90 years old. The archdiocese estimates it will take five to eight years for most of the schools to raise the funds and contract the retrofits, with construction largely during summer breaks.

In the case of St. Anne, the school is fortunate to have been able to fund the retrofit using $1.1 million in interest accrued from the school endowment, $2 million saved and socked away in school coffers by White in his nearly 30 years as principal, a $500,000 loan from the archdiocese, money from the parish, and $200,000 raised from alumni and parents. White said the scheduled completion date is Nov. 11.

The archdiocese has repeatedly stated that the retrofits are important to preserve the schools for future generations, a sentiment White shares. He said, at St. Anne, the children learn they are important, “God’s important, faith is important. That’s what Catholic school is about.”


09 8.31.17_Seismic.St.Anne.White.staff.open sheer wall on first floor HALFSt. Anne principal Tom White with school office manager Jackie Finnegan and first grade teacher Mily Lam are pictured in a first grade classroom that is under construction. (Photo by Valerie Schmalz/Catholic San Francisco)

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