"Mom and pop' owners kept off committee advising major upgrades

Allan Classen
Editor & Publisher

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The city’s seismic upgrade program is losing steam as it nears the finish line: a City Council hearing May 9 on proposed mandates on owners of unreinforced masonry buildings.

The URM Seismic Retrofit Project Policy Committee, a stakeholder advisory group administered by the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management, issued a “consensus” report last November, but now members of that body say there never was a universal acceptance of its recommendations.

And the biggest blemish on the committee’s finished product may not be the participants who say they weren’t heard but the impacted property owners who couldn’t get a seat at the table.

No “mom and pop” owners—those owning perhaps a single small URM building—were included on the 18-member committee. The committee included four development/construction companies, four other companies involved with real estate and five from the government and nonprofit sectors. But there was no room for the small owners who combined own most of the 1,728 URMs in the city.

Margaret Mahoney, who chaired the Policy Committee, and Carmen Merlo, who was director of PBEM until this year, told the NW Examiner that Walt McMonies represented the small owners. But when McMonies learned that he was so categorized, he blew the whistle.

Pippa Arend owns the 1905 Weist Apartments at 209 NW 23rd Ave., a National Register landmark she has restored but cannot afford to retrofit to the level recommended by the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management. Photo by Julie Keefe.

Pippa Arend owns the 1905 Weist Apartments at 209 NW 23rd Ave., a National Register landmark she has restored but cannot afford to retrofit to the level recommended by the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management. Photo by Julie Keefe.

It never crossed my mind that either staff or the small owners thought that I was representing the small owners,” McMonies wrote in a March 21 letter to Mahoney and three city bureaus involved with the project.

McMonies was cast in the three largest newspapers in Portland as a property owner supporting seismic upgrades who had put his money where his mouth was by voluntarily retrofitting his own building, Trinity Place Apartments, just off West Burnside Street.

McMonies heads Masonry Building Owners of Oregon, a group of about 25 mostly apartment building owners, some of whom own as many as 500 apartment units.

PBEM officials used his example as evidence that the mandates proposed were not onerous or infeasible for most small owners.

McMonies’ letter explained why that may be a false assumption.

The situation of the small owners diverges from that of larger owners in that the small owners typically have less monetary liquidity, less experience in renovation, fewer if any additional properties to stabilize their cash flow and no regular relationship with a structural engineer, masonry contractor or mortgage banker.”

Tom Carrollo, general manager of Beardsley Building Management, also served on the Policy Committee, and he agreed with McMonies on the hardships small owners would face.

The committee never did address the funding challenges and gap this requirement will impose upon many of the local, independent owners,” he wrote in an email to the NW Examiner. “In fact, they didn’t have much of a voice in the process and their contributions were treated rather cavalierly.”

Carrollo said larger companies such as Beardsley have in-house architects, engineers and construction crews, while small owners may be unable to find experts they can trust or who are even willing to return their phone calls.

These building owners should be praised,” wrote Carrollo. “They are the current stewards of Portland’s architectural origins and legacy. They have found ways to keep most of these old buildings alive and vibrant.

They should be treated with a little more respect than they were afforded in the process. A policy could have been promulgated that upgraded buildings WITH them instead of doing this TO them.”

Carrollo also said PBEM had evidence that smaller property owners would be in a bind to finance major retrofits. He referred to a PowerPoint presentation by Peter Englander of the Portland Development Commission (now Prosper Portland) in 2016 that found:

Institutional lenders and federal programs won’t lend on buildings that have not been retrofitted.

Most national and regional banks will only lend on retrofitted buildings (to code) and finance retrofits with the strongest borrowers.

There is a bank in this market that won’t finance URMs, period.

Angie Even helped organize Save Portland Buildings after discovering she and other small URM owners were left out of the process. Even said she asked Mahoney and Merlo several times to add a small owner to the Policy Committee but was told that McMonies already covered that base.

Even said small owners like herself, if unable to finance the required retrofits, will be forced to sell their properties at rock-bottom prices because the upgrades may cost more than their buildings are worth. That, in turn, will invite large developers to scoop up properties and clear them for redevelopment.

PBEM spokesperson Dan Douthit denied that the bureau said McMonies represented small owners.

City Council will hear recommendations on the retrofit program Wednesday, May 9, at 3 p.m.