1,800 unreinforced brick buildings need upgrades

An unprecendented increase in population. Alarmingly rising rents. The upcoming Cascadia Quake. In preparation for Portland’s predicted future, the city might place new, mandatory seismic upgrade requirements on brick buildings for safety that critics say would negatively affect the local economy.

The Portland Design Commission held a public forum last Thursday about the proposed policy that would require owners to retrofit unreinforced masonry (URM) buildings.

About 120 Portlanders attended to listen and speak on the proposed draft, which the committee intends to finalize and bring before the city council near the end of the year.

Basically, the policy requires old brick-and-mortar buildings to be seismically retrofitted — braced with steel to reduce the effects of liquefaction during a moderate ground quake. This covers most builds between 1870 to 1960.

PORTLAND DEVELOPMENT COMMISSION, BUREAU OF DEVELOPMENT SERVICES. - A map of which buildings the city has pinpointed as URMs to be upgraded can be found online at

The intent is to reduce risk to human life and doesn’t guarantee buildings can be occupied afterward, but aims for the buildings to be quickly reoccupied, adding to Portland’s resiliency.

“The committee gave a great deal of thought to the phase-in and to what level of performance to require a building after an earthquake, depending on what type of building it is,” Commissioner Steve Novick told the Business Tribune. “The bottom line is, we need retrofits to be done in order to save lives in the event of an earthquake.”PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP - Commissioner Steve Novick sponsors the Portland URM Seismic Retrofit Project.

Novick sponsors the Portland URM Seismic Retrofit Project, the group who developed the proposed draft. It includes members from the Portland Bureau of Development Services, the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management, the Portland Development Commission and the community. They have been meeting since December 2014.

“We are going to require, over a certain period of time, these buildings be retrofitted,” Novick said. “The problem is, we have hundreds of these buildings in town — we can’t wait, they might never be modified.”

The draft

The draft of the policy identifies four classifications. Critical emergency buildings and essential facilities like hospitals, fire stations, power generators, water treatment plants and police offices are prioritized, expected to meet the shortest retrofit timeline and the highest proposed performance objective: to remain operational after a moderate earthquake and provide life safety after a maximum earthquake.

Class 2 includes high-occupancy large offices and schools, Class 3 includes large buildings with 300 occupants or 100 residential units, Class 4 includes privately-owned non-critical buildings with 10-299 occupants, and Class 5 includes low-occupancy, low-risk buildings with zero to 10 occupants.

As for the timing, owners will have 10 years to complete parapet, cornice and chimney bracing; 20 years to complete bearing and exterior wall-to-floor attachment and out-of-place wall strengthening; and 25 years to complete the full retrofit — excluding most critical buildings. All owners will be required to complete a building assessment within three to five years.

“URMs pose a grave threat to human life in the event of a moderate earthquake, and we have a high concentration of URMs in Portland so we concluded that we do need to start requiring gradual retrofits to various levels of functionality,” Novick said. “We feel this is something we need to do because we live in earthquake country and we want to minimize loss of life when an earthquake comes.”

Current code

Current city code from 1995 offered incentives to owners who retrofit their buildings, passively triggering upgrades during ownership changes, usage changes, occupancy increases or renovations.

Margaret Mahoney, chair of the committee, said the main vulnerabilities of the brick buildings are parapets that break off, wooden floors detach from brick walls, and collapse.

“Although we have those passive triggers, not very many upgrades have been made,” Mahoney said. “The concern we’re all looking at here is the potential for loss of life. Those that have been upgraded are concentrated in the downtown core, but we clearly have URMs throughout most Portland neighborhoods.”

Of the total 1,884 URMs formerly pinpointed in Portland, only 4.6 percent (87) were fully upgraded, 8.5 percent were partially upgraded, and 8 percent (153) were demolished under the current code. An estimated 85 percent of existing URMs have had no retrofits at all.

The remaining nearly 1,800 buildings include 45 schools, 35 churches and 270 multi-family structures with 6,000 units. About 400 URMs are on the National Register of Historic Places or are located in a designated National Historic District.

This preparation isn’t specifically for the expected Cascadia Quake, but also to facilitate recovery from smaller quakes that, as of now, could be fatal for many in or around the masonry buildings.

The committees studied earthquakes and recovery around the globe, citing the 2011 Christchurch New Zealand quake that killed 185. Of those deaths, 42 are attributed to URMs: four people died inside URMs, six died in adjacent buildings from debris fall, and facades collapsed on the rest.

The new requirements are aimed to upgrade the buildings to a life safety level where people can escape safely until the quake is over, and the buildings won’t collapse — though they made need serious rehabilitation or to be demolished afterward.

“It may fall, but it won’t trap people in it,” Mahoney said. “It may not be repairable.”

Affordability concerns

Citizen pushback comes mainly from those who own, run businesses in or live inside the brick buildings, concerned for the cost and its effects on Portland’s economy.

Angie Even, owner of a 1940s building tagged for seismic upgrades, worries the mandate would create liability for community property owners.

“Building owners like me who are small and invested in the 1990s in a historic building in a historic neighborhood will either have to sell — because I can’t afford the upgrades — or I will have to somehow, I guess, sell to a developer, which is the thing I’ve been fighting for 30 years in our neighborhoods: keeping community property owners local, and local owners local,” Even said. “Either sell the building or demolish it, and there we go, there goes the historic building.”

Alternately, she could pass the cost on to her tenants, increasing rent.

The public expressed concerns about that possibility, saying once buildings are retrofitted they’ll no longer be affordable to rent or lease.

Affordable housing is one of the special considerations in the policy alongside schools, religious uses and historic structures.

For affordable housing, tenants must be relocated while work is done, leaving them vulnerable. Owners have limited ability to increase rent to cover the seismic work, so the committee made an exemption from the timeline.

Under the proposed draft, the city would agree with affordable housing owners to make and keep units affordable long-term. The agreement would include individually set milestones and timelines for achieving the same seismic upgrades.

More pushback

“I’m concerned about our inventory of historical buildings,” said Steve Rose, CEO and chairman of Bristol Equities, Inc. “Both historical and non-historical buildings built between 1890-1950, they contribute greatly to our quality of life and many of the buildings will need to be demolished ... they would not be economically feasible to retrofit.”

This includes storefronts littered along Hawthorne and Belmont, and many churches all over town.

“My guess is, it’s going to be over $1 billion. Where’s the money going to come from?” Rose asked. “It’s going to drive up the cost, add almost no value for the business owner, drive up the cost of housing, the cost of retail space, industrial space and so on.”

Jeff Reinholt, president and founder of Income Property Management Co., said insisting people dramatically alter their buildings should come with financial incentives and offsets to make the repairs possible. He manages market-rate and affordable residences.

“Over time, without financial participation from the government, you will lose a fair number — if not the majority — of moderately priced housing units in these buildings,” Reinholt said. “Really beautiful brick buildings I’ve owned and loved and managed ... are housing people at more moderate prices than the new construction. Specific steps I support would be to maintain reasonable balance between desirable and what’s economically feasible. I am concerned discussion is going faster than our ability to deal with it.”

John DiLorenzo, an environmental attorney, owns three of the vintage brick buildings that Reinholt manages.

“It seems to me if the premise of the proposed regulation is that these buildings just are unsafe for residents to occupy absent seismic retrofit, why would you tolerate an unsafe condition for affordable housing just because tenants lack the wherewithal to pay higher rents?” DiLorenzo asked. “I presume that owners will probably wait for help near the end of the schedule and there will be a rush to retrofit, which will mean many tenants will be displaced, dumped on a market that has limited supply.”

DiLorenzo pointed out that there are a limited number of seismic retrofit contractors.

“Have you done a study that predicts what will happen to rental rates in Portland? Have you thought about what the impact on prices given market forces will be?” DiLorenzo asked. “Have you thought about whether a $500,000 predicted cost will rise to a million, whether a million will rise to $1.5 million given the lack of supply and incredible demand that will result? Have you considered any precautions by contractors?”

Mahoney said the committee has been discussing rental rates and market prices, but has not conducted studies on price gouging on retrofits or rising rents.

“We have looked and have information on the current housing crunch, the amount of permits in the system, the backlog. The committee looked at the possibility of an exemption for affordable housing and allowance for the owner to commit to being affordable beyond those that are clearly subsidized at this point as a way to mitigate some of that effect,” Mahoney said. “The exemptions still require early-on improvements. I don’t think we’re entirely comfortable where we are at this point, there are still matters of discussion for the committee before we apply.”

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There will be a second public hearing on the proposed URM Seismic Retrofit Project

When: Thursday, Sept. 22, 6-8 p.m.

Where: Portland Development Commission, 222 N.W. 5th Ave.