The Portland City Council is having second thoughts about requiring warning signs on old brick buildings that could crumble in an earthquake.  

There are thousands of unreinforced masonry buildings across the Northwest, and Portland has the highest concentration of them. Last year, the City Council voted to require building owners to post “conspicuous” placards saying the building “may be unsafe in the event of a major earthquake.”  

Sample placards used to notify tenants and visitors that the structure is an Unreinforced Masonry Building.

Sample placards used to notify tenants and visitors that the structure is an Unreinforced Masonry Building.

Courtesy of the City of Portland’s Bureau of Development Services

But building owners have balked at the new requirement. They worry the signs will cut into their property values or leave small business owners responsible for repairs they cannot afford. 

At a rally outside Portland City Hall on Wednesday, Meara McLaughlin of Music Portland said the signage could lead to demolitions and displacement of affordable housing and art and music venues. 

“This law, whether intended or unintended, enables and almost (incentivizes) predatory gentrification,” she said.      

City commissioners approved the new requirements in October at the urging of Commissioner Dan Saltzman. Since then, he’s retired and been replaced by Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty. She oversees the Portland Fire Bureau, one of several agencies responsible for implementing the requirements. Hardesty announced last month that her employees would not be enforcing them.  

Mayor Ted Wheeler voted for the requirements last year. He oversees the Bureau of Development Services, another city department responsible for the signs, and had told his employees to continue with implementation.  

But at Wednesday’s hearing, Hardesty and Commissioner Nick Fish, who was not in the room for last year’s masonry vote, seemed inclined to at least delay the rules until Nov. 1, 2020. In the interim, a work group would seek buy-in on some mix of incentives and deadlines for seismic safety upgrades.   

“I think we will all benefit from a reset,” Fish said.    

Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Chloe Eudaly were absent Wednesday. The full council could vote on changing the unreinforced masonry requirements next week.