A packed spillover room at city hall
A packed spillover room at city hall Kelly Kenoyer

Portland City Hall was packed with concerned Portlanders yesterday for a four-hour-long hearing on a resolution determining the fate of 1,650 unreinforced masonry (URM) buildings in Portland. The vote could determine what kinds of retrofits will be required for URMs, which are widely considered the most deadly buildings in an earthquake, but the cost of retrofitting them is exorbitantly high. After 250 people showed up to listen and provide testimony to council, city commissioners decided to push their vote to June 13, to allow time for further deliberation.

Out of the 53 members of public who testified, only three were in favor of mandatory retrofits.

Before hearing testimony, staff spent an hour outlining the dangers posed by URMs—like how they're likely to completely collapse in the event of an earthquake, crushing occupants and dropping bricks onto passersby. Geophysicist Christopher Goldfinger testified that there's a 22 to 26 percent chance of a major seismic event in Portland in the next 50 years.

The resolution in question could mandate that private owners of URMs perform seismic retrofits on their buildings within the next 10 to 15 years. Mayor Ted Wheeler added an amendment that would limit those retrofits to a lower standard—one already required by statute as of 1995 that hasn't been successfully enforced—and lengthens the timeline to 20 years.

Important buildings like fire stations and hospitals, as well as high occupancy buildings like schools and community centers, will be required to retrofit to a very high standard under the new policy—one that commissioners and that the public do not consider controversial. The controversy lies with privately-owned buildings—over 85 percent of URMs in Portland—stems from the extraordinarily high cost of retrofitting a building—upwards of $50 per square foot for certain buildings. Many building owners pointed out that the costs of retrofitting outweighed the cost of tearing down their building and constructing a new one.

Commissioner Nick Fish also tacked on a few amendments to the resolution, notably removing language around mandating retrofits on privately owned buildings entirely, and instead strengthening an existing 1995 code to close loopholes. The 1995 code required building owners to perform retrofits when replacing 50 percent or more of the roof, but some owners got around it by only replacing 49 percent of the roof at a time, while others were never made aware of that requirement for their building. “When [the code] was adopted in 1995 it might have been doomed from the beginning,” he says.

Commissioner Dan Saltzman added his own amendment that would keep the higher standard proposed by staff—a retrofit that requires building owners to bolt masonry walls to the floors in their building, which can help prevent collapse.

"Is our obligation to the mom and pop owner, or to the 600,000 residents of Portland?" he asked.

Richard Larson, one of 53 people who gave testimony at the hearing, said, "It's going to put a burden not only on mom and pop, but everyone who looks at an investment in real estate and livelihood." He added that an unfunded mandate would force a lot of demolitions. "Funding is necessary for a mandate," he said"

Suzie Rice, a condo owner in a URM building, said she wasn't notified of her building's status before moving in—something the resolution proposes be required. She said requiring retrofits could force her and her neighbors to sell.

"Don't require this mandate without full financial support and a plan for displacement," Rice said.

Save Portland Buildings Poster advertising the hearing
Save Portland Buildings Poster advertising the hearing Mercury Staff

The vast majority of the testimony came from concerned building owners and their allies—historic preservationists, renters wary of being ousted and of raised rents, and admirers of the old brick buildings that many argue define Portland's streets. Only three members of the public testified about the need to retrofit. Alex Roth was one of those three—he told a story about a URM building in California, a beloved local cafe, that collapsed during an earthquake, killing two people. "It disturbs me a lot that the standards discussed are not up to life safety standards," he said.

At one point during the testimony, Commissioner Amanda Fritz at asked whether the public would support a bond measure to help fund seismic retrofits of these old buildings, something several public testifiers came back to and voiced support for.

Fish told the Portland Mercury that the biggest concern with this issue is funding.

“The city is going to have to come up with financing other than these tax abatement programs,” he says. Fish argues that these programs don't help small business owners who don't have a lot of built up capital. “The city is going to have to step up and put some money on the table. I think Build Portland is one potential source of that funding.”

As for the future of the resolution, Fish says he's not sure how he'll vote yet, and he doesn't see a consensus in among his fellow commissioners yet.

“I don’t want to adopt a scheme here which ends up making our housing emergency worse and complicating the plan that [Comissioner] Chloe [Eudaly] and I have launched around affordable arts spaces," he said.

He adds, “there was no one that testified last night that wasn’t concerned about seismic resiliency. The question is how do we strike the balance between whatever standard we set and how we pay for it.”

Council will reconvene on June 13 to vote on the resolution.