Portland’s push to address unreinforced masonry buildings peters out

By Rebecca Ellis (OPB)
Sept. 30, 2020 6:08 p.m. Updated: Sept. 30, 2020 8:41 p.m.

The city of Portland has halted its work to determine what to do with the approximately 1,600 aging brick and stone buildings that are predicted to collapse during the next big earthquake.

With the city mired in a public health and economic crisis, officials said they no longer have the bandwidth to prepare for a major Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake.

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On Wednesday, the council agreed to dissolve a workgroup tasked with figuring out how to reduce the risks posed by these unreinforced masonry buildings, or URMs. Emails went out to the 27 members of that task force last week, informing them the group was finished.

“The ongoing pandemic emergency, the historic racial justice movement, wildfires, and the ongoing protests have forced us to refocus our resources. It is now clear that (the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management) must concentrate on pandemic response and recovery at least through 2021,” read the email. “We cannot in good faith make demands of your time and proceed with the URM work.”

The workgroup was appointed last fall after the city walked back an ordinance that mandated large warning signs be posted on the vulnerable buildings. That was after a coalition of building owners sued the city, accusing them of devaluing their property, and a judge ultimately issued a temporary injunction against the requirement. With placards off the table, the city thrust the question of what to do next onto a workgroup.

“This is a new day, we have a new opportunity,” Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said at the time. Hardesty oversees the Bureau of Emergency Management. “Let’s get it right this time because the lives of Portland [residents] depend on us getting it right.”

But the pandemic brought the work to a grinding halt. Jonna Papaefthimiou, a program manager with the city’s emergency management bureau, said the group met twice before the city put it on pause in March at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis.

She said the bureau has a full plate right now with emergency response work for COVID-19. Officials considered turning the project over to the Bureau of Development Services, but that bureau was already stretched thin trying to move its operations online. Papaefthimiou said the soonest the emergency bureau could realistically turn its attention back to the workgroup was next summer.

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The financial crisis caused by the pandemic could also present a serious roadblock to the committee. Retrofitting an unreinforced masonry building is expensive, and there were already doubts the committee could chart a clear path forward without city or state funding. The path forward financially has only gotten murkier.

“We don’t have time or resources to staff the project,” Papaefthimiou said. “No one has any money to do retrofits right now.”

Papaefthimiou also noted community leaders are busy with the push for police reform and may be unable to fully participate in the discussion around retrofitting during this time. Many of the city’s unreinforced masonry buildings are in historically black neighborhoods, and the local chapter of the NAACP has pushed back against past regulations, saying it will unfairly burden people of color. But doing nothing to make the buildings safer also presents an equity problem, as these residents will almost certainly be some of the hardest hit during an earthquake.

Papaefthimiou said she doesn’t see when the work to retrofit unreinforced masonry buildings will start again at the local level. She said it’s possible the state building code could include stronger provisions on unreinforced masonry buildings — but that will be up to the state.

Thomas Sjostrom, who does public affairs work for Building Owners and Managers Association of Oregon and is a veteran of unreinforced masonry building workgroups, said he expects there will be another URM taskforce down the road, and they will likely run into the same issues.

“The history of dealing with seismic problems in Portland is they come up against a wall called money. It takes a ton of money to fix seismic problems, and so, as a result of that, any workgroup — this one or any other work group — their hands are tied as to what they can really do. Individuals can’t afford to do these upgrades,” Sjostrom said. “Memory seems to be short in the community.”

Other members thought it was shortsighted to let the carefully picked committee, which included tenant advocates, unreinforced masonry building owners, structural engineers, developers and pastors disband, even if there were big financial hurdles on the horizon.

“I’m actually very disappointed,” said Shirley Chalupa with DCI Engineers, a civil and structural engineering firm. “What they’re doing now is delaying the life safety issues of these buildings and leaving buildings owners with all the risk and financial burden.”

The workgroup was the last city-sponsored effort to address these vulnerable buildings. The placard requirement is gone. The city has taken its database of unreinforced masonry buildings offline after a push from the NAACP, which said there were inaccuracies in the database that made it unreasonably difficult for building owners to get loans.

But the threat posed by a major earthquake is not going anywhere. In the resolution dissolving the group, the city leads with the fact that Portland “faces a significant risk from a catastrophic earthquake.”

“It’s something that our city’s going to need to address because the earthquake will happen,” said Jennifer Eggers, with Holmes Structures, who served on the group. “It’s just when.”

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