URM Update: Over-reach or Critical Need

By Midge Pierce

Portlanders concerned about the changing cityscape are bracing for the outcome of a June 13 City Council hearing on new seismic retrofit rules.

Proposed Unreinforced Masonry (URM) regulations would require buildings with at least one wall made of brick or blocks joined by mortar with no steel reinforcement to undertake fixes that reduce potential earthquake damage. If the draft is approved, a major issue will be how to implement and fund costly retrofits of some of the City’s most heralded structures.

The Bureau of Emergency Services policy committee has recommended a tiered approach requiring upgrades first to critical structures such as schools, community centers and government buildings with lower-risk buildings targeted later. The goal is fixes that will enable use after an earthquake.

Seismic strengthening of walls, roofs and floors is readily done but at six figures and up–a cost few have been willing to absorb under current regulations that kick in only if a roof is replaced or the building re-classified. Securing chimneys and parapets–the main cause of earthquake deaths–can be a less costly approach.

The focus on earthquake hazards that were largely unknown until recently has some residents worrying that they play Russian roulette every time they walk out their door. Others fear URM is just another City tactic to encourage turnover and demolition of Portland’s historic structures. The Hawthorne Business district is among the Main Street-style corridors that will be particularly hard hit by the costs of retrofits. (See seeastexaminer.com/2017/12/seismic-retrofits-for-urms/SE Examiner.)

After Courtney Patterson, interim director of the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management, indicated broad support for URM, a Stop Demolishing Portland post countered that the department failed to listen to “building owners, tenants, small business owners and those who don’t want what’s left of the city’s history to be demolished.”

The post continued, “Folks are demanding that they fix the code…and provide real solutions for owners to pay for/finance retrofits–not to mention what they intend to do to prevent evictions and displacement of low-income renters and small businesses currently in URMs”.

Few dispute the need for safe structures in the event of a major earthquake, many feel is inevitable. The multi-fold challenge is adopting policies that are cost-effective and offer the most benefit in tandem with funding options and incentives. Meanwhile, the cumulative impacts of recently implemented regulations like home energy scores and the omission of historic inventory updates from the Mayor’s budget has stakeholders shaking their heads in alarm.

URM Update: Over-reach or Critical Need

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