Earthquake safety: Portland buildings could be forced to upgrade - KPTV - FOX 12

Earthquake safety: Portland buildings could be forced to upgrade

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The City of Portland is proposing a major project to make historic buildings safer in the case of an earthquake. 

The Portland cityscape is peppered with them – old, brick buildings that have a lot of character, but according to city officials, not a lot of backbone if a quake were to hit. 

"The point of this is life safety, quite frankly. We want to make sure these buildings don't kill people, don't injure people," said Carmen Merlo, who is with the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management.

Hundreds of URMs, or unreinforced masonry buildings, were built back in the 1960s or earlier in the Rose City. 

Experts say URMs lack the structure to be able to withstand an earthquake. Today there are nearly 1,700 of them, and only 13 percent have been upgraded to modern safety standards, according to the City of Portland.

"Many of these buildings are over 80 years old and have had very little, if any, maintenance done," Merlo said. 

Now, the City of Portland is proposing that all of the URM buildings be retrofitted with proper modern construction. Higher-risk buildings, such as power and water facilities, will have a 10-year timeline to make all the changes. Lower-risk ones, such as one-story commercial buildings, will have up to 25 years.

But building owners know the changes will come at a cost.

"Building owners like me, who are small, who invested in the 1990s in a historic building or neighborhood, will have to sell, because I can't afford to upgrade," said a Portland building owner.

Many others at Thursday’s forum also voiced concerns about their livelihood. 

"Any building that is retrofitted will no longer be affordable," another building owner said.

Portland building owner Steve Rose said, "The Cascadia event, if it should occur, all bets are off. None of the retrofit, the billion plus dollars that are spent, if this policy is enacted, would ensure the safety of the people it’s intended to."

But the City of Portland says we can't afford not to make seismic safety prep a priority.

"In this case the city government has an obligation to protect life safety, so we believe the means justify the ends," said Merlo.

Portland leaders are looking to cities such Los Angeles and San Francisco, which have already undergone major retrofit projects. Some local building owners say that is also a concern.

"When they first started some of the requirements in Los Angeles, many businesses went out of business. Because again, they could not afford to do this," said a Portland building owner at the forum.

There will be another public meeting on Sept. 22 at 6 p.m. at the Portland Development Commission. After hearing community feedback, Portland City Council will likely vote on the ordinance before the end of the year. 

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