Seismic Retrofits for URMs

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Property owners throughout Portland are preparing for an imminent event of historic proportions that could level the majority of the city’s older commercial and apartment buildings.

It is not the much-awaited subduction earthquake that has put building owners, school boards, and hospitals in a state of grim anticipation, but rather the city’s response to the coming event.

This past month a special Bureau of Emergency Management (BEM) policy committee that has been studying seismic retrofits for unreinforced masonry buildings (URMs) issued a draft report with a series of recommendations that could run into six figures for the owners of these older brick and masonry buildings.

The obvious purpose of the recommendations, which will likely entail building code changes, is to minimize human deaths and injuries when the Big One arrives.

As BEM director Carmen Merlo explained in a recent interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting, “Ideally, we would retrofit these buildings to at least a life safety standard… There’s certainly a cost [to] the retrofits. There’s an even greater cost of doing nothing.”

Hundreds of URMs are located in SE neighborhoods. They include the Avalon Theatre and the Historic Belmont Firehouse on Belmont; the ¿Por Qué No? restaurant and Morlee Court apartments on Hawthorne Blvd..

Kathy and Marc Rogers, owners of the Morlee apartment building, talked at length about their predicament one recent evening in the kitchen of their home across from Laurelhurst Park.

“If this mandate comes through, requiring building owners to do these incredibly expensive seismic upgrades, the vast majority of owners like ourselves won’t be able to afford it,” Kathy explained. “So our only choice would be to sell to a developer, who would demolish it.”

Added Marc, “So they acquire the land at a discount and then put something else up” that might be two to three times the value of the previous building.

Asked if he believes the retrofit process has lowered the market value of Morlee Court, he responded “absolutely.”

The Rogers’ dilemma, like that of other URM owners, is stuck at the intersection of geophysics and civil engineering. A 2009 study published in Nature magazine estimated that there is a 10 to 14 percent chance of a magnitude 9 earthquake striking the Pacific Northwest within fifty years.

A year later a study at OSU concluded that there is a 37 percent chance of a magnitude 8 or greater occurring in that same time span.

In response, the BEM policy committee has recommended that all URM owners be required to retrofit their properties to building code 24:85 within fifteen years; a requirement that presently is only triggered when an owner either re-roofs, changes the building’s use or changes the occupancy classification.

As of this year, only about 15 percent of Portland’s URMs have been either fully or partially retrofitted.

Not all scientific opinion is on the side of the BEM, however.

“Virtually every benefit/cost analysis that’s been done on retrofitting, including the one that was commissioned by the city of Portland, has concluded that you get the most benefit for the least cost by retrofitting parapets [sections of exterior wall that rise above the roof], chimneys and cornices,” says Michael Feves, a local geophysical engineer who also teaches at PSU.

“There’s a finite amount of resources with which to do this. So we have to be realistic about what can be accomplished with the resources that are available.”

Marc Rogers, for his part, says that he would be willing to retrofit Morlee Court to the extent described by Feves. He claims that “70 to 80 percent” of building-related deaths in a catastrophic earthquake are caused by falling parapets and cornices, but strengthening these accounts for only 20 percent of the cost of a full “life safety” retrofit.

Another issue that has rankled URM owners is the city’s lackadaisical effort to inform them that their buildings will soon be costing them a bundle more.

Pippa Arund, who owns a multi-family URM in NW, didn’t find out until she received a postcard from an organizer for Save Portland Buildings, a URM advocacy group, three months ago.

The Rogers claim they didn’t hear about it until last January, but others have been watching closely.

In October, the Hawthorne Boulevard Business Association sent a letter to the BEM declaring, “Our community’s historic buildings create the ambiance that makes Portland, Portland. Insurance costs will rise, bank loans will rarely be available and rents cannot be increased enough to make $600,000 to over $1,000,000 retrofits feasible.”

There are other concerns too. According to Arund, who works at a mentoring center for homeless youth in Old Town, the retrofit mandate could affect more than 1,800 affordable housing units, keeping them vacant for a year or more.

“There is an actual housing crisis now. What this would do is exacerbate that,” she says.

The only viable financing solution that has been proposed thus far is SB 311, which would give URM owners a 15 year partial abatement on their property taxes, but this would scarcely cover the cost.

Unless a better solution is found soon a sizeable chunk of old Portland will be gone 50 years from now – either by quake or by the wrecking ball.

Seismic Retrofits for URMs

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