PORTLAND, OR (KPTV) - Portland City Council recently voted to label more than a thousand buildings in the city as potentially unsafe during an earthquake. A group of building owners are now threatening to sue the city because of it.
Old brick buildings, known as unreinforced masonry buildings or URM’s, are everywhere in Portland.
“This is a landmark,” said Brad Popick, owner of The Portland Outdoor Store.
Popick’s shop is an example of one of the more than 1,600 URM’s considered vulnerable in the city.
“The store has been here 100 years,” Popick said. “It will be 100 years next year.”
It’s also a shop that will soon have an 8-by-10-inch plaque by the front entrance, telling customers the building may be unsafe in the event of a major earthquake.
“There’s some real issues with it,” Popick said.
Popick said the ordinance puts a scarlet letter on his long-time business, even though he said his landlord is currently looking into ways to retrofit the building.
“Labeling I think is a little stretch,” he said. “I think it’s a little far.”
Partner John DiLorenzo, at the Portland law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, agrees. He calls the ordinance unconstitutional.
“Most of these bridges would fall into the river if there was a 9.0 earthquake, they’re not going to be placarded,” said DiLorenzo.
Last week, he sent a letter to the mayor threatening a lawsuit on behalf of the Masonry Building Owners of Oregon, if the city doesn’t withdraw the ordinance or work with the group to change it.
DiLorenzo claims the ordinance is against free speech.
“Because we as owners are being required to speak the way a city wants us to speak,” he said. “The owners aren’t making claims to begin with and they’re being required to speak.”
DiLorenzo also claims the timeline for putting up the placards is unfair and politically influenced.
The city told FOX 12 publicly owned buildings are required to have placards up by January. By March, all privately owned buildings should have them. Then in 2020 non-profits, like churches, are required to put them up.
“If you own an identical building and happen to be a for profit, you have to place an identifying placard on your building contains the city’s statement by March 1st of next year,” DiLorenzo said. “If you own the very same building, but happen to be a non-profit, you have two years to do it.”
“And if you happen to have that building as your house and use it as a residence, you don’t have to placard at all,” he continued.
Jonna Papaefthimiou is the Planning, Policy, and Community Programs Manager at the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management.
“I think city-wide we have a better understanding of earthquake risk,” she said.
Papaefthimiou said for years now, the city has looked at ways to help make Portland’s most vulnerable buildings safer.
“When it got to council, the feeling was we just weren’t quite there yet in terms of implementing a mandatory retrofit requirement for the majority of commercial unreinforced masonry buildings,” she said.
As a compromise, Papaefthimiou said they decided to at least let people know about the potential risks in the most direct way possible.
“The state of California has required these plaques since the 1990s and it’s helped people be more informed,” Papaefthimiou said.
Portland City Commissioner, Dan Saltzman, backs the ordinance.
“In my mind, if we’re not going to do something sooner than we should give some information that we have,” Commissioner Saltzman said. “If we have it, people have a right to have it.”
The Commissioner said he doesn’t believe the plaques will keep people from visiting their favorites restaurants and stores. He said it could affect where people live and work though.
“It may influence a decision about whether they live somewhere or lease an office, but you can’t blame people for acting in their best interest,” he said.
He also admits the placards are only a temporary step to hopefully a permanent solution.
“When those types of decisions are made by residents, that helps light a fire under the landlords to make those seismic retrofits,” he said.
Commissioner Saltzman said he’s met with city attorneys and on a preliminary basis told FOX 12 they don’t feel the ordinance is unconstitutional and they feel they can defend the claims.
He said as far as he knows, the city is planning on responding to the letter Friday.
If you would like to see all of Portland’s URM’s in the city, click here.
Copyright 2018 KPTV-KPDX Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.