Housing May 30, 2018 at 4:00 am

Many of Portland’s Historic Brick Buildings—And Their Residents—Won’t Survive an Earthquake. What Can Be Done?



There has been a lot written on Portland's URM problem and as an emergency manager I have been concerned and learning about our situation for several years. I found this article to be balanced and fair and also educational to give those who haven't been following this discussion some very helpful context. Thank you Kelly Kenoyer and The Portland Mercury for investing the effort and energy to understand this issue and represent it fairly and accurately.


The article is a bit confusing regarding the City's URM seismic upgrade history. It is correct that the original voluntary upgrade requirements were based on collapse prevention. However, the recent effort, which they named the URM Project, recommended Class 3 & 4 buildings be brought up to current code standards. It was this standard that was reduced to modified bolts plus after pressure from URM building owners and users. The URM Project was initiated following the Christchurch earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. Christchurch was a community very similar in size, mix of buildings, and building codes to Portland. The level of damage, especially to URMs was extensive. It was as close a model on what will in happen in Portland in an earthquake as one could find. A review of Portland's voluntary upgrade program showed that very few URM buildings had been upgraded and so wasn't effective in preparing Portland for a Cascadia earthquake. The initial recommendations from the URM Policy committee was to have Class 3 & 4 buildings be brought up to current code levels. This is logical since codes are life/safety minimums, with anything less you expect injury and deaths. Unfortunately, the lessons from Christchurch regarding modified bolts plus were not that encouraging. They do work well for smaller earthquakes, but are not as effective for larger earthquakes. This makes it a reasonable choice for places with many earthquakes of varying sizes. Oregon is different from California and Washington in that we do not have many earthquakes compared to them. What we do share with them is the large subduction zone earthquake just offshore. Unfortunately for us, it has a high likelihood of happening. Doing modified bolts plus really isn't a good policy. The standard should be current code. The real questions are how to pay for it and addressing equity concerns.


As a lay person, it would seem if the intention is to making URMs safe, that means bringing them to code. Full stop.

Also, most of the URMs here in Portland, though they may be old, it would seem a stretch to call them "historic". Wow, this used to be a factory 100 years ago! 100 years! No one was even alive then! To see these architecturally unremarkable and demonstrably unsafe structures referred to as "historic" seems less a marker of any sort of meaningful cultural history and more an excuse to not do anything.


Seems to me the best solution is to float bonds ad infinitum to reconstruct all the buildings affected. That way the population will all move away because of the resultant taxes. The empty buildings will all survive the quake, making temporary housing for the remaining citizenry to use in the subsequent decade(s) of rebuilding.


To put saving the "look" of Portland over saving lives is beyond me. Obviously it's more complicated than that... But saving lives HAS to come first.

I do feel for the building owners, of course. The city needs to help them finance the retrofitting, make it possible for them to take out loans, etc.

The current proposal is basically just for show, so the city can say they did "something." But if it's never been tested, it's basically pointless. NOT ACCEPTABLE. Stop putting lives at risk.

Please wait...

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