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Multnomah Village Business Association pens letter to City about potential requirements for seismic retrofitting

The City of Portland is deliberating whether to adopt seismic retrofitting requirements for local buildings. And this has caused some consternation among Southwest Portland business and property owners.

The mandate would require owners of unreinforced masonry buildings, which are generally built out of brick and don't have steel reinforced walls, to implement retrofitting so that buildings can better withstand the turmoil inflicted by a natural disaster.

In April, the Multnomah Village Business Association sent a letter to the City of Portland urging it to implement retrofitting requirements delicately and include Southwest Portland business owners in the conversation. The letter also stressed that the mandate could present challenges for local business and property owners.

In the letter, the MVBA cited the increase in chain stores that have been added to the area in recent years and that a stringent retrofitting requirement could incentivize local property owners to sell their property to larger chains to avoid the cost of implementation.

"If you do go to sell you're not as marketable to the average guy just like you (because a retrofitting requirement could make unreinforced buildings less marketable), so you market it to the big developer who is going to build something new, increase rents over time and the character of the village would change as well," Multnomah Business Association President and real estate broker Erin Primrose said. "It (a stringent retrofitting requirement) would create a major shift in the culture and the liveability of the businesses because they (small businesses) don't have the deep pockets and neither does the holding owners in this area."

MVBA member Randy Bonilla said the relationship between turnover in the village and a looming retrofitting requirement is tenuous, but said the requirement could expedite turnover if the rules are too onerous.

"We don't want to force out our small businesses. But if they mandate too much, too quick, the prices go up and we lose our small businesses and only the chains and others come in, which is a long term impact," Bonilla said.

In recent years, Portland residents have been increasingly cognizant of the city's close proximity to the Cascadia Subduction zone — which hasn't caused a large scale earthquake since 1700 and could inflict tens of thousands of casualties in the tri-county area and hundreds of deaths in Portland in the event of a 9.0 earthquake, according to a recent study produced by the Oregon Department of Geology and Minerals Industries.

Though the deadline for completing the requirement was initially discussed as being 10-to-15 years down the line, Mayor Ted Wheeler advocated for extending the deadline to 20 years at the May 9 Portland City Council meeting. The City will consider the issue again at a meeting June 13.

Tye Steinbach, who has attended City planning meetings that address the retrofitting requirement, owns Thinker Toys in Multnomah Village — which is an unreinforced masonry building. He was initially alarmed when he heard rumblings of a retrofitting requirement but was encouraged by the potential deadline extension.

Also, Wheeler's proposal would force owners of unreinforced masonry buildings to tie their building's roof to its walls and to reinforce the parapot, which would be less costly than a more expansive retrofit that would also include tying the floors to the walls.

"My understanding is we will have 20 years to make serious progress and that the cost is going to be $50,000," he said. "That's the kind of money that we should be able to scrape up over that time to make these alterations."

Bonilla also believes the City should focus on facade improvements rather a flow blown retrofitting. The former requirement would be much costlier, Bonilla said, and could cause buildings to be torn down.

"That's (tearing the buildings down) cheaper than trying to upgrade some of these buildings... I'd personally be hard pressed to invest money into some of them just because knowing what the infrastructure is, that would be a tough sell," he said. "I also believe that if they do a mandate like that they have to put it out over a period of time that makes it feasible for property owners to actually do the work, and afford to get that work done without pushing out all our businesses," Bonilla said.

Steinbach is worried that a high demand, low supply environment for retrofit contractors could pose challenges including increased prices for rennovations.

"There aren't that many people that are skilled at doing this kind of retrofit work. If you take 1,600 buildings and there aren't that many contractors to do it, you're creating a bit of a bottle jam," he said.

In May, Bonilla said he wants Multnomah Village business and property owners to have the opportunity to express their views to the City.

"If city council will be open to having these conversations and we get the right people in the room with them that are representatives of the community, they're more likely to talk to the city about: 'Here's our impact and this is what it would mean to the jobs and that kind of thing," he said.

Primrose said the small town feel of Multnomah Village is wholly unique in Portland. And she's worried that rapid turnover could dull its authenticity.

"I go to the east side all the time and (I think) 'This is great.' But it doesn't have this isolated, cute, small town feel where everyone knows each other," Primrose said. "If you end up with the cookie cutter type businesses, you end up not setting yourself apart."

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