IN A CITY almost comically underprepared for seismic doom, 1,640 buildings manage to stand out as especially dicey.
They are churches with towering steeples and longtime community centers. They include Voodoo Doughnut and the Keller Auditorium, but also dozens of schools, charming boutiques, downtown office buildings, and perhaps even the place you sleep every night.
Most basically, they are aging brick buildings that weren’t built to withstand an earthquake. Portland has more of them than any city on the West Coast, and when the Big One hits, these “unreinforced masonry” (URM) structures will be among the first things vying to take you out.
As a city-commissioned report noted last year: “Unreinforced masonry buildings in Portland unequivocally pose substantial life safety risks not only to their occupants but also to people on adjacent sidewalks and streets.”
Portland’s known that URMs are a risk for more than two decades—about as long as we’ve known that a serious earthquake will occur here at some point in the future. The buildings’ unsecured parapets and chimneys are prone to giving out during serious shaking, possibly crushing people walking (or fleeing) below. Their walls are at risk of collapsing and disconnecting from a building’s floors, leading to the ugly specter of occupants buried in rubble.
Despite this, decades-old rules meant to encourage safety upgrades have been ineffectual. So since 2014, the city’s been taking another crack at the problem, working up new policies that could force building owners to upgrade URM buildings to safeguard against collapse.
Lately, the building owners have been fighting back.
As a volunteer URM Policy Committee prepares final recommendations for how Portland should bolster its rules, a vocal group is on the verge of watering down those recommendations—and potentially advocating for regulations that are hardly different from those currently on the books.
The group of URM owners, calling itself Save Portland Buildings, argues that requiring too many safety upgrades will lead to a litany of dire consequences, including demolitions of charming old buildings, tenant displacement, higher rents, and diminished property values. While city officials and emergency planners speak of buildings crumbling when Portland finally experiences the Cascadia subduction zone quake that we know is coming, building owners downplay the risk.
“Do not do this to 1,600 or more building and property owners in the name of safety and fear,” reads an October 10 letter from the Hawthorne Boulevard Business Association to city officials. “When or if the earthquake happens, then the properties can be sold and new buildings will rise out of the rubble.”
This and similar pleas have had an impact. Earlier this year, the committee working up final recommendations for city council appeared on the verge of pushing strict rules to protect both passersby and occupants—standards recommended by a group of engineers, architects, and geologists. They would include mandatory upgrades such as stabilizing parapets, cornices, and chimneys so bricks don’t topple onto the street below, but also bolting each floor to a building’s exterior and bracing the walls to help prevent URMs from collapsing.
At one point, the committee was mulling standards more rigorous than even quake-prone California’s, which has had mandatory building upgrades on the books for decades, according to Carmen Merlo, director of the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management.
But at the group’s most recent meeting on October 4, the conversation had shifted. Moved by the emotional, often-angry pleas of building owners, the committee appeared ready to back off stricter mandates for roughly 83 percent of the city’s URMs.
In the weakest option seriously considered at the meeting, building owners would only be required to secure their chimneys and parapets within a decade—the cheapest safety upgrade on the table, but one that is already supposed to be required and does nothing to assure the safety of people within a URM when a quake hits.
It’s possible that a recommendation to city council will also include a requirement that URM owners bolt a building’s floors to its walls within 15 years. Even if that’s part of the deal, a number of other safety upgrades favored by city officials will likely be left out.
“We’re going after something that I would probably consider less than collapse prevention,” Merlo says.
Owners have had success in fighting seemingly common-sense steps, too—such as posting placards on URMs that haven’t been upgraded, and making sure tenants are aware of the dangers. As of last month, the policy committee didn’t support either move.
It’s not that Portland doesn’t have laws addressing URM safety—it’s just that they’re toothless. City code requires seismic upgrades once owners hit certain triggers, such as significantly increasing or changing building occupancy, or conducting extensive renovations. Owners have steadfastly avoided hitting those triggers.
Another provision requires owners to brace their parapets, chimneys, and roofs whenever more than 50 percent of the roof is replaced within a five-year period. Owners have exploited the rule by replacing half their roof, then waiting five years to replace the other half (some also suggest that the city has failed to enforce the provision).
As a result, little more than 20 percent of the city’s URMs have been addressed—via demolitions and whole or partial upgrades—since 1995.
“The current regulations,” states a draft report issued in July, “have not proven to be as effective in reducing the risk posed by URM buildings as had been hoped.”
To be clear, URM owners have a point: The cost of an extensive seismic upgrade can outpace the value of an aging building, leaving choices that include bringing in a wrecking ball, selling off the property at a discount, or eating thousands of dollars in fines. If owners can make things pencil out, they’re potentially forced to displace tenants—both residential and commercial—while the fixes are made, and raise rents.
But today, even a relatively basic requirement that floors be bolted to walls has owners predicting dire consequences.
“It would be close to $2 million,” says Pippa Arend, who owns a 109-year-old URM building on Northwest 23rd with 12 residential units. “I would economically be forced into a state of blight, or my building comes down and becomes condos.”
Arend is a rare voice in this discussion: Not only does she own a URM building, but she also lives in it. And Arend’s day job, at the homeless services organization p:ear, is also possibly located in a URM, she says. If that building is forced to upgrade and rents rise, she fears the nonprofit will be displaced.
“I feel uniquely in the crosshairs of this,” she says. “There’s so much potential for unintended side effects.”
But Arend is far from alone. Angie Even, who owns a small commercial URM in the Woodstock neighborhood, is at the forefront of the group of building owners pushing back against city regulations.
Even says she first attended a meeting on URMs in September 2016 having never heard the acronym, and quickly became alarmed.
“They said residents would have to be displaced. Nobody could tell me where the people should go,” she says. “They said there should be funding. Nobody could tell me where the funding was.”
Even organized along with other owners at the meeting, sending out two mailers to recruit support and asking a member’s son to build a website. Save Portland Buildings was born—and settled on talking points that they’ve been pushing at every opportunity.
“It’s just going to devastate these small business districts,” Even says. “We’re not talking about the big buildings. We’re talking about the little buildings in these main streets.”
There appears to be at least some financial help on the way. Earlier this year, the city successfully lobbied for a new law that grants Oregon cities the ability to offer property tax exemptions to buildings that perform seismic upgrades. There’s still no telling how steep the subsidies will be, or how they’ll work, but some advocates argue they’ll have to cover as much as 80 percent of the cost of upgrades to appeal to building owners.
“We can’t mandate [upgrades] until we have economic tools to offset the costs,” says Peggy Moretti, executive director of Restore Oregon, who serves on the policy committee.
Others believe the outcry is overblown—and point to the fact that URMs are already at risk. Experts believe there’s a 12 to 18 percent chance a devastating magnitude 9.0 earthquake could strike Portland in the next 50 years.
It could hit next month. It could hit next century. It’s definitely coming.
“The geologists and seismologists are all lined up,” says Walt McMonies, another committee member. “I think these buildings will be piles of bricks if they aren’t retrofitted. Bricks are going to be flying all over the place.”
McMonies, a former real estate lawyer, has an interest in earthquake science and serves on the state’s Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission. He also owns a beautiful 36-unit URM building in Northwest Portland that he recently finished voluntarily upgrading to withstand an earthquake.
“The writing was on the wall,” says McMonies, who adds that the $1.1 million in retrofits he installed will help him get more favorable loan terms and reduce his insurance premiums. “I really love some of these old buildings. To me, it’s important to save these guys.”
People like Even and Arend roll their eyes at McMonies, painting him as a wealthy attorney who’s got more resources than most. But Brian Emerick, a local architect who specializes in seismic retrofits and also serves on the city’s policy committee, says he thinks owners are overstating what seismic upgrades might cost—particularly the watered-down fixes currently under consideration.
“There’s a lot of emotion and unfortunately a lot of misinformation out there,” Emerick says. “The costs, I think, are a lot less than what they’re saying.”
What ultimately comes of this discussion is up in the air. City officials had planned to have a report to city council by next month, but the outcry over URMs delayed a decision. The policy committee’s next meeting has been set for November 8, and whatever recommendations it decides upon are only advisory. A more definitive fight will take place before city council later this year. (Mayor Ted Wheeler, who oversees emergency management for the city, tells the Mercury he hasn’t “landed on a particular strategy,” but doubts buildings will be demolished en masse with new regulations.)
Arend, the owner who lives in her own lovely URM building, will be there, arguing for less regulation. She knows that an earthquake is coming, she says, but when asked by the Mercury whether she thinks her building is at risk, she waffles.
“I don’t know how to answer that,” Arend says. “I’m not going to answer that in the positive. I sleep well.”