“This is an unreinforced masonry building. Unreinforced masonry buildings may be unsafe in an event of a major earthquake.”

That’s the message people across Portland are starting to see on the outsides of buildings, and by fall, a few thousand parents of school children will be seeing that sign on buildings they visit every day.

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

Parents of children in Portland Public Schools have already gotten alarming messages that more than two dozen schools are at risk in an earthquake because of aging building materials.

For now, the district has sent out messages. By fall, officials intend to post signs outside the schools, as the city of Portland requires.

The placards at PPS buildings will go up in spite of the district spending millions to address seismic problems at schools using money from three voter-approved bond measures — in 2017, 2012 and 1995.

Citywide, the Bureau of Development Services database lists more than 1,500 buildings that require placards, warning people that the structures are made of unreinforced masonry and may be at higher risk of collapse in an earthquake. Among that list are nonprofit organizations, businesses and schools, as well as churches.

Earlier this month, NAACP-Portland rallied outside of City Hall calling the placards a “scarlet letter” on older buildings, such as historically-Black churches and businesses.

“Putting a plaque on a faith institution basically closes that faith institution,” argued recently-elected city Commissioner JoAnn Hardesty the rally, as reported by the Portland Mercury. Hardesty is the city’s first African-American woman to serve on Portland City Council.

The City’s Bureau of Development Services downplayed the significance of the placards in response to concerns.

“The declaration is not a lien and does not compel any retrofitting on the part of the building owner,” said BDS Communications Manager Alex Cousins in a statement. “We look forward to working with community members and building owners to make our city safer in the event of a large earthquake.”

Seismologists have been pushing policy makers to take steps to prepare the region for a massive earthquake expected to hit the state at some point in the years to come.

Portland Public Schools began its efforts to improve the seismic resilience of its schools in 1995, when it spent $47 million on retrofits. The improvements affected 26 schools on the city’s list of unreinforced masonry buildings. But the work was generally limited to roofs and considered “incremental,” according to a summary PPS provided to OPB

Likewise, millions invested from the 2012 bond was considered “incremental” at 11 buildings, though the complete rebuilds at Franklin, Grant and Roosevelt high schools removed those campuses from the city’s list. Work from the 2017 bond has barely begun.

In this 2017 file photo, District Chief of Modernization Jerry Vincent led a tour through the remodeled Franklin High School. 

In this 2017 file photo, District Chief of Modernization Jerry Vincent led a tour through the remodeled Franklin High School. 

Laura Klinkner/OPB

District officials say there are a few more buildings likely to be removed from the city’s “placard list,” as a result of ongoing work from the 2012 and 2017 bond. Those include Alameda, Hayhurst and Lewis. The Fernwood campus of the Beverly Cleary K-8 school and Rigler Elementary are slated to get their roofs strengthened – a step that in previous projects has been considered “incremental” and not sufficient to negate the need for a city placard.

A handful of schools are scheduled to get major overhauls under the 2017 bond, as happened with the voter-approved measure in 2012. Fully-funded master plans are underway for Lincoln and Madison – though neither of those buildings is in the city’s database as an unreinforced masonry building in need of warning signs.

Benson High School is on the city’s list, and was part of the PPS 2017 bond that voters approved, but financial overruns mean that construction of Benson will rely on a future bond, or an alternative financing plan.  

George Middle School is on the city’s list of URM buildings, but has received no seismic work and is not slated to receive any, according to information PPS has provided. 

Not all the PPS work was funded through construction bond measures. The district also received $4.5 million in 2017 through the state’s Seismic Rehabilitation Grant Program.

Some of the district’s seismic efforts have been directed at buildings that the city did not identify as being made of unreinforced masonry. PPS has done seismic work at 16 such schools over the last several years, guided by its own evaluation of risk and other factors.

File photo from 2013 showing construction on the Wilson High School roof.

File photo from 2013 showing construction on the Wilson High School roof.

Rob Manning/OPB

More than half of those schools were rated as having an “expected seismic performance” of “poor,” on a district list composed in 2012, long before the city’s ordinance on unreinforced masonry buildings. But a handful, including Bridlemile, Maplewood, Stephenson elementary schools and Wilson High — all on the city’s wealthier west side — were rated as “fair” or “good,” under the seismic ratings. George Middle School, which has not received seismic work, was rated as “fair” on the district’s rating chart in 2012.

Full list of Portland Public Schools subject to city ordinance

Beverly Cleary, Fernwood
Capitol Hill
Creative Science
James John
Mt. Tabor
Rose City Park