A URM building in Napa, CA after a 6.0 earthquake
A URM building in Napa, CA after a 6.0 earthquake California Governor's Office of Emergency Services

Portland City Council has unanimously passed a resolution that will create policies for mandatory retrofits on unreinforced masonry buildings, or URMs—the city's brick buildings most vulnerable to collapse during a major earthquake. It's the first step in a long process, but an important step nonetheless.

The decision followed a contentious hearing on May 9, during which dozens of URM building owners came forward to protest what they called an "unfunded mandate." Their concerns—and, specifically, the concerns of Black clergy members in Northeast Portland—led to several amendments to the previous policy meant to protect the buildings from financial ruin.

The most notable amendments lengthened the timeline for mandatory retrofits, sped up the timeline for informational placarding on URMs, and created two work groups devoted to finding financial solutions to the very expensive problem of retrofits.

First, council changed the deadline for commercial URM building owners to retrofit their roofs to 20 years— and extension from the original resolution, which mandated those repairs within 10 years. Council also removed the requirement for commercial URM owners to connect their floors to the walls with bolts—a requirement structural engineers say would have helped prevent the collapse of some of these buildings in an earthquake.

Commercial buildings fall under "Class 3" and "Class 4" in a URM ranking system. Class 1 and 2 buildings are high occupancy buildings, like schools, and buildings that are important for emergency response, like fire stations and hospitals. Classes 3 and 4 buildings are mostly commercial buildings, apartments, and other privately owned buildings (the majority of them are privately-owned).

Class 1 and 2 buildings will have very high safety standards under the new resolution, while Class 3 and 4 were originally expected to meet a "reduce risk of collapse" standard meant to protect passerby and, perhaps, make things a little safer for inhabitants.

But the removal of that requirement may only be temporary. “Council has put off the question about these specific classes of buildings for another year,” said Jamie Dunphy, Commissioner Nick Fish's senior policy director, after the Wednesday council meeting.

Commercial buildings make up 80 percent of URMs. To address their owners' concerns, the council has asked staff to create two working groups—one will include stakeholders like private building owners, tenants, and financial experts to determine a clear path to achieve retrofits without financially devastating building owners. Estimates for the cost range from $43 to $105 per square foot, or around $450,000 for a 9,500-square-foot building.

The other working group focuses primarily on churches and other nonprofits, which have unique difficulties financing such construction due to their nonprofit status. Churches and other tax-exempt groups will not be required to implement new seismic standards immediately, and the working group is meant to help them find the financial capacity to increase safety in URMs.

This decision was inspired by a meeting Wheeler had with leaders from predominately Black churches in Northeast Portland, where he discussed how the policy would harm their congregations. Many of those leaders and congregants came to the meeting to voice support for Wheeler's amendment and raise concerns that they had not been included in the conversation previously.

"Safety is important to us," said J.W. Hennessy, president of the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. “There are people who live in [class 3 and 4 buildings] who are voiceless, and we want to stand there for them.” But, he added, “Our concern was about engagement in the process.... We want to have access to information to make good decisions for the community.”

Class 1 and 2 buildings, which include schools, meeting halls, fire stations and hospitals, will move forward to the code writing part of the process, and that code adoption should be before council in about a year. "We took some important steps: retrofitting community centers, schools, critical facilities, those are really buildings that are so essential to emergency response,” says Jonna Papaefthimiou, a Resilience Manager at Portland Bureau of Emergency Management (PBEM). Those buildings are also on a 20 year timeline, but have significantly higher safety standards than those proposed for class 3 and 4 buildings.

A safety-focused amendment brought forward by Comissioner Dan Saltzman also passed unanimously. That amendment speeds up the timeline for labeling URMs with informational placards that describe the risks associated with that building type. The Portland policy will come before council in three months. Placards may be required on URM buildings as soon as March 1, 2019. “It’s incumbent upon us to share that information so our citizens can make informed decision,” Saltzman said.

“This is the clearest issue for me," said Commissioner Chloe Eudaly. "Every tenant and occupant has a right to make an informed decision on whether they want to live in an URM."