By Gabriel Frayne Jr.

The city-wide dilemma concerning how to mandate seismic retrofits for Portland’s nearly two thousand unreinforced masonry buildings (URMs) without forcing their demise will take a step towards a policy resolution when the issue comes before the city council later in April.

This phase of a nearly three-year long process follows the release of a final report by the URM Policy Committee who makes a series of recommendations for retrofitting different categories of buildings depending on their use.

The council will be hearing from a variety of community stakeholders, which includes URM building owners. Whatever mandate eventually results from the council’s action will only relate to commercial buildings, churches, schools and other public buildings and multi-family apartment buildings. Single-family residences will not be affected.

URM refers to older brick and masonry buildings built before the 1960s, when city codes began to require steel-reinforced construction for larger buildings. Fifty years on, the designation has come to symbolize many of the remnants of Portland’s early history, including Union Station, the Crystal Ballroom, Rejuvenation Hardware, St. Stephen’s Catholic Church, and the Historic Belmont Firehouse – the latter three in SE.

The fact that these buildings pose a potential danger to the public in the event of a major earthquake has been the underlying reality of the Bureau of Emergency Management’s (BEM) attempt to reach a compromise with URM building owners (including public agencies) over building code changes.

“The standard that the policy committee ultimately proposed for many of the buildings is better than doing nothing, but it’s not so high a standard that we can guarantee that the buildings will be functioning after an earthquake,” says Dan Douthit, public information officer for BEM.

That standard is known as “collapse risk reduction,” which would require the majority of URM owners to brace parapets (sections of exterior wall that rise above the roof line), cornices and chimneys, and attach roofs and floors to the walls within a fifteen-year time line. A higher standard of retrofit would be required for “essential” buildings such as utilities, schools and hospitals.

Although the standard falls short of the “life safety” standard for all URMs the BEM had advocated for previously, the recommendations remain problematic for many URM owners.

According to Kathy Rogers, co-chair of Save Portland Buildings (and, with her husband Marc, the owner of the Morlee Court apartments on Hawthorne Blvd.), “Our stance is that we want to have the safest buildings possible, but we have to be able to do something that is financially tenable.”

Of course, financially tenable means different things to different owners. Rogers estimates that under current building code 24.85, she will spend approximately 300 thousand dollars to retrofit her building when she replaces the roof sometime within the next five years. “It’s no small piece of change, but it’s something that’s doable,” she says.

It seems the main point of contention between Save Portland Buildings and the BEM is the proposed requirement to attach roofs and floors to the walls, which is both expensive and disruptive.

While the current building code might suffice to reduce the risk of debris falling on passersby, the collapse risk reduction aims to limit the risk of buildings pancaking down and killing or injuring the occupants inside.

In any event, nobody seems to know exactly where the funding for this massive citywide mandate will come from.

SB 311, enacted by the state legislature last fall, allows municipalities to give partial property tax exemptions to building owners for the purpose of seismic retrofits, but few URM owners believe this will be adequate to support contracts that could run over a million dollars. The funding problem is even more onerous for school districts and hospitals, which would need to retrofit to a higher standard.

For URM owners without deep pockets, the only alternative may be selling their buildings at a discount to real estate developers, which would in all likelihood mean demolition.

Douthit notes that many California cities “have gotten rid of all these buildings” as a result of similar mandates, though Portland would have a considerably longer timeline.

The politics of seismic risk reduction remain somewhat murky as the City Council prepares to hear testimony. While some claim that URM owners are protecting a vested interest, others point out that an exorbitantly expensive mandate would create a bonanza for the real estate development industry.

The council itself has been tight-lipped on the issue. Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who oversees the Bureau of Development Services, did not respond to multiple requests for information for this article, and none of the other commissioners has gone public with a stance on the policy committee’s recommendations.

At least on one point all seem to agree: the risk of a major quake is real and some level of retrofit is inevitable.

HBBA response to URM

In a letter to City Council, HBBA, the Hawthorne Boulevard Business Association, seeks a delay in the implementation of URM until community funding is guaranteed. HBBA fears URM is an invitation to replace Portland’s historic older buildings with big, boxy, incompatible developments that destroy the street’s character.

Citing more than forty district buildings targeted in the URM inventory, the letter says the mandate will result in a landgrab of small building owners’ properties.

Requirements for upgrades will cost more than maintenance set-asides. Bank loans will be hard to secure and rents cannot keep pace with the potential million dollar costs of retrofits. The result will be property sell-offs that encourage demolition.

“Clearly without funding, mandating this retrofit project is irresponsible… Approving any mandate is an invitation to decimate Portland’s small, older buildings.”