The Central Eastside as seen from the Fox Tower in Portland, February 19, 2015. The district contains dozens of earthquake-susceptible unreinforced masonry buildings, a handful of which have been fully or partially upgraded to withstand a major quake. (
Mayor Ted Wheeler wants to give owners of earthquake-prone buildings more time to make costly upgrades.
The Portland City Council will consider a resolution next week that calls for seismic retrofits in all unreinforced masonry buildings, which are particularly susceptible to collapsing in quakes.
But Wheeler has proposed giving building owners 20 years, citing the enormous cost of the upgrades. That would be a decade longer than the due dates proposed by an advisory committee in December.
The committee had recommended giving the highest-risk buildings — critical infrastructure and high-occupancy buildings like schools or theaters — 10 years to meet the mandates, while other buildings would have 10 years for some fixes and 15 for others.
Wheeler also proposed to eliminate for most the majority of unreinforced masonry buildings a requirement that floors be securely fastened to walls, a measure intended to reduce the risk of building collapse.
Building owners have balked at the looming mandate. Seismic upgrades typically cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and they can top $1 million for large buildings. They often require the building to be vacated during construction, displacing businesses or residents while cutting off revenue to the building owner.
Some building owners have already encountered difficulty refinancing because of the possibility the retrofit mandate would diminish the value of the building, said Kyle Chisek, a Wheeler aide. Others have sold in part because they won’t be able to afford the upgrades, displacing business or residents.
Preservationists worried the mandate could prompt the demolition and redevelopment of historic buildings — although those concerns are tempered by worry the buildings could just as easily be destroyed in an eventual earthquake.
The 20-year timeline would allow the city to develop financial incentives to offset the cost of the upgrades, Chisek said. The city also plans to ask the state Legislature to adopt its own financial incentives.
"This isn’t just an issue for Portland," he said. "It’s an issue for cities across the state."
Experts say a major earthquake and tsunami is inevitable along the Cascadia subduction zone, a fault that lies off the Pacific coast. A worst-case quake could kill thousands and leave hundreds of thousands homeless.
But even a more minor quake could cause brittle unreinforced masonry buildings to crumble.
Portland has identified some 1,800 unreinforced masonry buildings, and less than 15 percent have been fully or partially retrofitted.
— Elliot Njus
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