With proposed upgrade deadlines, will we see demolition of historic buildings on a massive scale?
Many historic buildings across Oregon – schools, theaters, churches, apartments, and commercial storefronts up and down our Main Streets – were constructed of unreinforced masonry. Known as URMs, they were built in an era when the threat of a major earthquake in the Northwest was unknown and the primary safety concern was fire. The vast majority have not been seismically upgraded.
Seismic retrofitting for URMs is mandated in earthquake-prone cities from San Francisco to Tokyo. In Oregon, it is not – but that may change. The Portland City Council will soon consider a recommendation from a Seismic Advisory Committee to enact a set of mandatory seismic upgrade standards and deadlines. The standards are tiered based on the use of the building, and the deadlines range from 10 to 20 years. Other cities in the Cascadia Subduction Zone (roughly the western third of the state) may follow suit. Seattle is also poised to mandate retrofitting.
Restore Oregon’s Executive Director, Peggy Moretti, served on the URM Policy Advisory Committee and cast a dissenting vote on some of its recommendations, which posed a daunting dilemma. Retrofitting a building is expensive. Depending on the level of seismic strengthening, costs can exceed the value of the building, leading to demolition. How do we meet the need for public safety when we lack the financial tools to pay for it?
For public buildings such as schools, fire stations, and emergency facilities, the tax payers will have to foot the bill, and the highest level of retrofitting known as “immediate occupancy” will be required.
For the average URM, such as a commercial storefront or apartment, a lower standard is being recommended by the committee. It would require tying roofs and floors to walls, but does not reach the full “life safety” standard that many hoped for due to the cost burden to private and non-profit property owners.
Investment in seismic retrofitting does not generate higher rents in the marketplace to pay back loans for retrofitting, and even if it did, many worry it would displace residents and exacerbate challenges of affordability.
Oregon Needs a Seismic Tax Credit
Earlier this year, voters approved SB311, a measure that allows local jurisdictions to offer property tax credits to offset seismic costs. Restore Oregon supported the bill as a step in the right direction. However, in many cases the amount of the credit would be far less than the cost of retrofitting. Furthermore, the credit would be spread across 15 years after the work was done – it doesn’t help pay the upfront construction costs. It should also be noted that property tax credits effect public school funds, and schools will need every dollar to pay for their own retrofitting.
A state income tax credit for seismic retrofitting is called for. Tax credits can be converted into construction funds.
Retrofitted buildings provide a major public benefit, preventing loss of life and livelihood. Retaining the authentic character, embodied heritage, and rare materials of historic buildings, is also a major public benefit. So it makes sense that the cost of seismic upgrades be borne, in part, by public funding.
The state must pull its weight in this matter. Local budgets can’t cover it alone.
For more information, please visit the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management’s Seismic Retrofit Project.