The Portland City Council is taking another stab at trying to figure out what to do with the roughly 1,600 old brick and stone buildings that are likely to come crumbling down during the next major earthquake.

As expected, at Wednesday’s City Council meeting commissioners voted to walk back an ordinance passed last fall, which required building owners to post large warning signs on these vulnerable structures, officially known as “unreinforced masonry buildings” or URMs. 

A sign on a business in Northeast Portland warns visitors that the building is constructed of unreinforced masonry on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019.

A sign on a business in Northeast Portland warns visitors that the building is constructed of unreinforced masonry on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019.

Courtney Sherwood/OPB

The council has now decided to take a different approach after a lawsuit was filed by a group of these buildings owners who accused the city of unjustly devaluing their property. After voting to amend the ordinance, the council voted to create a new committee tasked with figuring out how to reduce the risks posed by URMs.

In a stark break from previous thinking on the topic, council members said they don’t predict the work group will come back with a policy that mandates owners retrofit their buildings. City officials said such a mandate would likely result in the displacement of residents and would be too costly for the city.

“I don’t expect anything to come out of the work group that has the recommendation that the city will foot the bill because we just won’t, and we can’t,” Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said. “I believe we will have greater success working with all parties if no one is negotiating under that kind of pressure.”

This goes against a resolution passed last June that would have required owners of unreinforced masonry buildings to retrofit their properties. Under the resolution, building owners would have had up to 20 years to remodel their properties  in a way that would allow the building to withstand an earthquake with little damage.

In a presentation to the council, Jonna Papaefthimiou, a program manager with the Bureau of Emergency Management, said the bureau found these retrofits are happening slowly in Portland. Eighty percent of the city’s building stock still hasn’t been retrofitted, she said.

Mayor Ted Wheeler did not attend the vote to appoint the new committee. All four commissioners voted in favor, though commissioner Amanda Fritz made it clear she was “skeptical” about the effectiveness of a committee who would be unable to rely on city or state funding.

Hardesty, who oversees the Bureau of Emergency Management, framed the committee as a new chance to tackle the risky buildings, this time with buy-in from building owners.

“This is a new day, we have a new opportunity,” she said. “Let’s get it right this time because the lives of Portland [residents] depend on us getting it right.”

The task force will be charged with making recommendations to “reduce the life, safety risks posted by URM buildings and reduce displacement during a seismic event.” The group, comprised of volunteers, is expected to make recommendations to the city council in a year’s time.