Students who choose to explore campus will notice many changes to the built environment around them. From the state-of-the-art Knight Management Center, to the award-winning Arrillaga Family Dining Commons, to the long-awaited Bing Concert Hall, ambitious new construction has reshaped the University. Living as we do in an area prone to major earthquakes, it should please all members of the Stanford community to know that these new buildings are planned to withstand the worst shaking that the San Andreas Fault has to offer. However, it is somewhat less comforting to know that older structures known to be seismically unsound have been allowed to stand. Before the next time Stanford decides to replace the palm trees in front of the Arrillaga Alumni Center as it did last summer, the University should make certain that all of its structures are prepared for the inevitable quake that will one day rock the campus.
The most conspicuous building known to be unsafe in the event of an Earthquake is Meyer Library. Dating from 1966, the library continues to serve as a focal point of academic life at the University despite being declared seismically unsound in 2007. Demolition of the library was scheduled for 2012, but in the intervening years, the University failed to make a decision regarding the future location of the material currently residing in Meyer’s East Asia Library. Though nothing has been set in stone, the University has achieved something of a consensus that the East Asia Library will move to a new home in the Graduate School of Business South building. Unfortunately, assuming that the Board of Trustees approves the move, the new space will not be ready until at least 2014. Demolition of Meyer library cannot even be scheduled before that date. Even if demolition proceeds quickly after Meyer’s contents are relocated, nearly a decade will have passed between the study that affirmed Meyer’s seismic vulnerability and the time when the building no longer endangers its patrons.
Another notable structure that could present danger in the event of an earthquake is Searsville Dam, located far to the Southwest of the main campus in Stanford’s Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. Constructed over a century ago, the dam withstood the major earthquakes in 1906 and 1989 with only a few finger-sized cracks appearing in the more severe 1906 quake that proved harmless and easily repaired. Judging from its past success and a recent seismological study touting its structural integrity, the risk from the dam does not stem from complete collapse, but from something rather more mundane.
Searsville Lake, the reservoir created by Searsville Dam, has been filling with silt since its construction. The reservoir is now between 90 and 95 percent silt, with the majority of that accumulating during earthquakes and extremely heavy rains. A large earthquake could completely fill the reservoir with silt within a year, with unpredictable consequences for communities downstream. Proposals have been floated for removing the dam, and for dredging the silt, but thus far debate over those options has been inconclusive. Whichever solution to the silting question is decided on, it will be far easier–and likely cheaper as well–to implement it over a longer time frame than would be available if an earthquake were to force decision makers’ hands.
Decisions to demolish, retrofit or construct buildings should never be made lightly. Nevertheless, the long delays that have accompanied debate over the futures of Meyer Library and Searsville Dam have put safety and property in jeopardy. Though less glamorous than a new concert hall, eliminating the aforementioned threats must be done in a timely fashion. Stanford has been on the cutting edge of both earthquake science and earthquake preparedness for decades. Let’s keep it that way.