In the last few years there have been major earthquakes in every corner of the Pacific Rim – except the Pacific Northwest. We will inevitably experience one, and part of our emergency preparedness work is to save lives by preventing our older buildings from collapsing. That’s why I initiated a project to retrofit the most vulnerable of our buildings, Unreinforced Masonry (URM) constructions. We now know what we need to do to shore up the 800 URM’s in Seattle. But how can this be financed? And should we require the buildings to be retrofitted, not just to ensure the survival of the people, but to ensure that the buildings can go back into service, which will cost even more up front? Over the next few months, we will make critical policy choices about those questions, in preparation for City ordinances to be adopted in 2014.

Unreinforced masonry buildings are the kind of thing that keeps emergency management people up at night. You don’t want people to be in one when the big earthquake strikes Seattle.

We were lucky in 2001. While many of these buildings sustained damage, there were no fatalities. But 2/3 of the buildings that were red or yellow tagged were URM’s, consistent with the patterns seen in previous Seattle earthquakes. In the 1970’s the Council tried to address this by requiring these buildings to be retrofitted to new earthquake standards. But property owners complained that it would cost too much – and, as the memories of the 1965 earthquake faded, the ordinance was repealed. In 2008 I launched a new effort to research the current status of these buildings and develop technical standards for retrofit. We then convened a Policy Committee of interested stakeholders to provide feedback on options for developing a retrofit program for URMs. 

The more than 800 URM buildings in Seattle are typically relatively low and located in older areas of the City. They are often of historic value and significance, and provide much of the character for places like Georgetown and Pioneer Square. URM buildings were generally built before modern earthquake resistant building codes, and our research suggests that only about 10 to 15% of them have been upgraded to improve their earthquake survival. Retrofits are required when a building undergoes extensive renovation.

The Policy Committee completed its work in October of 2012. It recommended that the City adopt an ordinance requiring that commercial URM buildings and residential buildings with three or more units retrofit to what is called a ‘bolts-plus’ standard, or equivalent. The core elements would be bracing parapets, connecting floors and roofs to walls, interconnecting framing to strengthen floors and roofs, and strengthening load bearing walls. This would bring the chances of survival for inhabitants to a level similar to that of a building constructed to modern seismic standards. It would not, however, ensure that the buildings could be brought back into use.

Under the proposed program, buildings would be evaluated, and those with critical risks (such as schools and hospitals) would have seven years to come into compliance. High risk buildings (greater than 3 stories on poor soil or with more than 100 occupants) would have ten years, while medium risk buildings (all others) would have thirteen years. There are no low risk URM buildings.

The Committee recommended that the City move forward with a full program that would provide technical and financial support for building owners, and encourage them to retrofit in advance of the deadline and to go beyond the policy’s minimum requirements.

While this provides the essential policy framework for legislation next year, there are two core questions that remain unsolved.

First, as noted above, this standard does not require the building to be capable of being brought back into service after it has been damaged. The Policy Committee was already concerned about the cost of retrofitting these buildings, which are generally older and relatively modest in size. But the emerging ‘best practice’ in emergency preparedness is to develop resiliency strategies – strategies to ensure that the City can get back on its feet quickly and that the economy can rebound as fast as possible. Cities like New Orleans have struggled for years to recover a semblance of normality. In response, Seattle is currently preparing a plan for recovery and resilience that we hope would minimize recovery time. We don’t want to be left with communities dominated by derelict buildings or that lose their historic character when they have to be torn down.

In recognition of this, I asked the Committee to consider what it would take to reach a ‘recovery level’ standard, and to broaden their cost benefit analysis to consider the costs when buildings are unable to participate in the recovery.

Unfortunately, this only makes the next concern even more significant. How will building owners be able to afford to retrofit? The City has very limited tools for providing financial assistance to building owners, and we are still trying to figure out what we can do. We can provide direct assistance for public and non-profit property owners, if we can find the funds from a levy or bond issue, and there are some federal grants that can also be helpful.

But we cannot provide direct assistance for private property owners, so we have to look for indirect tools. Among those we will consider will be:

  • Property tax abatements (this will require authority from the legislature)
  • Revolving loan funds (probably would require private participation)
  • Allowing buildings to sell the ‘air space’ over the building to other properties in a transfer of development rights program
  • Providing architectural and engineering resources
  • Accessing federal tax credits for historic buildings
  • Developing a coordinated low cost financing program with the assistance of private institutions

Even all of these together are not likely to be able to defray the full costs of retrofitting. This is the critical conundrum that we will have to consider as we move towards adoption of retrofit ordinances in 2014. It will be a difficult and challenging discussion and policy debate. But it is one that we must have if we are to truly embrace a sustainable earthquake preparedness and recovery strategy that will protect the lives of our residents – and the future health of our City.