Portland’s URM Seismic Retrofit Requirements on Hold for NowJul 11 2018 · 0 comments · NISHKIAN DEAN, Seismic ·0
Nishkian Dean has been closely following the efforts of the URM Building Policy Committee and Portland City Council regarding their plan to develop a mandatory seismic retrofit policy for unreinforced masonry (URM) buildings.
We previously reported on updates from the URM Building Policy Committee in July 2017, which you can read here (https://www.nishkian.com/the-4-6-billion-unreinforced-masonry-mandate/) and in January 2018, which you can read here (https://www.nishkian.com/paying-for-the-4-6-billion-urm-mandate). This post is intended as an update to these previous posts, and to cover recent committee news.
The Portland City Council held a public hearing to vote on the URM Building Policy Committee recommendations contained in the final report dated December 2017. There was significant public response to the implementation of the URM Building Policy Committee Report recommendations, with many building owners expressing concern about the cost to implement the safety measures and the lack of funding available. Thus, the city council decided to postpone any action until June 2018.
On June 13, 2018, the Portland City Council passed a resolution providing guidance to City staff to develop a mandatory seismic retrofit policy for unreinforced masonry buildings. The resolution states that the partners in this effort—the Bureau of Emergency Management, Bureau of Development Services, and Prosper Portland—are to develop URM Mandatory Retrofit Implementation Steps and return to Council for adoption within one year . This resolution effectively kicks the can further down the road until there is more opportunity to identify sources for funding or to determine the financial feasibility of implementation of the proposed upgrades.
For Class 1 and 2 URM buildings (critical buildings and essential facilities, such as hospitals, police and fire stations, power generating stations, and water treatment plants; as well as high-occupancy structures such as schools, churches, and theaters) , the City Council decision has directed City staff to “develop code language for the adoption of a mandatory seismic retrofit program for Class 1 and Class 2 URM buildings as described in the Unreinforced Masonry Policy Committee Final Report and return to Council for adoption within a year,” according to the resolution . Class 1 and 2 URM buildings comprise approximately 6% of the total building inventory.
For Class 3 and 4 URM buildings (average- to low-occupancy non-critical buildings) —which comprise approximately 94% of the total building inventory—a newly formed working group composed of URM building owners, URM building tenants, and other subject matter experts have been “charged with further evaluating reasonable seismic retrofit requirements, support, incentives, and timelines for these types of buildings,” the resolution states. This research will include “identifying specific strategies to achieve wall-floor ties including incentives, financing options, tax strategies, and hardship options.”  The working group is to return to Council within a year to report on their findings.
According to a city inventory, there are more than 1,600 known URM buildings in the City of Portland. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) states that URM buildings are “typically the most vulnerable to earthquake damage,” including building collapse and loss of life.  The importance and urgency of the City Council decisions are due to the fact that the City of Portland faces significant risk from potential catastrophic earthquakes, including from the Cascadia Subduction Zone and from smaller faults beneath the city .
In 2014, the City of Portland created the URM Seismic Retrofit Project to “develop a policy to require the mandatory retrofit of all URM buildings in the city and develop methods to assist building owners implement the policy,” according to the City’s website . Led by the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management (PBEM) in collaboration with Portland Bureau of Development Services (BDS) and Prosper Portland, the City hopes to mitigate the danger posed by URM buildings, in part by requiring retrofits to improve human safety during an earthquake and to protect Portland’s historic buildings .
The City of Portland’s Unreinforced Masonry (URM) Building Policy Committee (Committee) estimates that since 1995, roughly 8% of URMs have been demolished. Of those that remain, about 5% have been fully retrofitted and about 9% have been at least partially upgraded .
Two decisions from the June 13th City Council meeting that may have a more immediate effect include the placement of placards on URM buildings to warn visitors, and a requirement for landlords (URM building owners) to notify their tenants that they reside in a URM structure. The resolution states that, starting in March 1, 2019, URM buildings that have not been retrofitted must post placards that “state clearly in a conspicuous place at the entrance of the building printed in not less than 30-point bold type: ‘This is an unreinforced masonry building. Unreinforced masonry buildings may be unsafe in the event of a major earthquake.’” 
Another ordinance from the resolution that would have an effective date of March 1st, 2019, would require “Portland URM building owners to incorporate language into their rental agreements that states: ‘This building, which you are renting or leasing, is an unreinforced masonry building. Unreinforced masonry buildings have proven to be unsafe in the event of an earthquake.’” These last two ordinances are to be returned to City Council for adoption within three months. 
Nishkian Dean will continue to monitor the development of this important issue that affects many of our clients. Please contact us if you have questions on how these policies may affect your projects.
- Portland City Council Resolution No. 37364: https://www.portlandoregon.gov/auditor/article/689174
- Unreinforced Masonry (URM) Building Policy Committee Report (December 2017): https://www.portlandoregon.gov/pbem/article/661773
- FEMA website: https://www.fema.gov/media-library/assets/documents/18030
- City of Portland Unreinforced Masonry (URM) Buildings – FAQ: https://www.portlandoregon.gov/bds/article/588418
- Portland Bureau of Emergency Management Unreinforced Masonry (URM) Seismic Retrofit Project: https://www.portlandoregon.gov/pbem/66306
- DJC article: http://djcoregon.com/news/2018/06/14/portland-city-council-delays-seismic-retrofit-requirements/