An interesting status report was posted online tonight by San Antonio officials who are examining the retaining wall collapse at the Hills of Rivermist. Officials met with local builders, who were told they must review all retaining walls built over the past three years that are more than four feet tall. The builders must make sure an engineer designed each wall and that the structure was built correctly. And the builders must pull permits for each wall by March 31.
The builders raised several concerns about the city’s permitting requirements, some of which were discussed in our story about the city’s lack of oversight of retaining walls. Here’s the complete status report on the city’s Web site:
Development Services, the Greater San Antonio Builders Association, and approximately fifty of its members met today to discuss the need for the public to feel assured retaining walls in San Antonio have been built correctly. At the meeting, Development Services discussed:
* The City’s building code requirements to obtain permits for retaining walls.
* Builders need to (1) identify all retaining walls over four feet and built during the past three years, (2) provide documentation the walls were designed by an engineer and built correctly, and (3) obtain permits for the walls by March 31st.
* Development Services will use the information to develop a tracking system for retaining walls.
At the meeting, the builders initially expressed that they did not believe all retaining walls require permits. In addition, since some of the walls were constructed several years ago, they were concerned about the challenges of finding documentation to satisfy the City’s permitting requirements. Finally, they expressed a need to amend the Unified Development Code to clarify permits are required during the site development stage of construction.
Development Services responded to the builders’ concerns by reiterating permits are required for retaining walls over four feet. The department will work in partnership with the builders to issue permits and to obtain documentation that attest to the safety of the walls by the end of the summer. Finally, Development Services agreed to explore an amendment to the Unified Development Code to reinforce the procedures for permitting retaining walls during all phases of construction; from land development to building development.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Development Services and the builders agreed it was important to restore the community’s confidence that existing retaining walls built in San Antonio are safe. Development Services will develop information bulletins and new applications to reinforce the procedures for permitting retaining walls related to new construction.
Jen and I wrote a story that ran in Sunday’s paper and was posted online today about the lack of oversight of retaining walls in San Antonio. We looked at this issue after a retaining wall in The Hills of Rivermist, a neighborhood built by Centex Homes, split apart and jeopardized dozens of houses:
Despite the growing popularity of towering retaining walls like the one that buckled last week, San Antonio officials have paid scant attention to the structures in residential subdivisions and can’t vouch for their safety.
No one at City Hall tracked how many walls were built over the years as thousands of residents flocked to the Texas Hill Country and developers reshaped steep terrain for new homes.
City inspectors never checked the walls.
And, according to members of the real estate industry, it wasn’t widely known that a permitting process existed for tall retaining walls.
“No one can find where the city has ever asked for or insisted on a permit,” subdivision developer Norman Dugas said. “I can’t find anyone who has ever gotten one.”
Jen and I wrote a follow-up story today about the sinking neighborhood in San Antonio called the Hills of Rivermist:
The retaining wall that collapsed last week and jeopardized a neighborhood built by Centex Homes was built with less mortar than what engineering plans called for, according to city officials who inspected the wall Friday.
“Staff determined that the retaining wall was not built in accordance with the design provided by (the) design engineer,” Assistant City Manager T.C. Broadnax wrote in an e-mail to his boss, Sheryl Sculley, Mayor Julián Castro and the City Council.
“For example, the building plans for the wall show limestone mortared throughout the wall. Based on field observations of the failed portion of the wall, mortar was not installed according to the building plans.”
There are many different types of retaining walls. The one at Rivermist is called a gravity wall, which relies on a heavy mass of mortar and stones to remain stable. So if a contractor skimps on the mortar in the core of the wall, the wall becomes lighter and it can become unstable.
Here’s the city e-mail describing the lack of mortar inside the wall. The city also set up a new Web page that provides updates about Rivermist. Residents can also report concerns about retaining walls near their homes.