Perhaps the most surprising claim to come out of a packed City Hall hearing on proposed seismic upgrade mandates last month was that the recommended requirements would be inexpensive.
City Council chambers and two overflow rooms were filled and people had to be turned away largely because owners of unreinforced masonry (URM) buildings feared the costs of upgrades would be ruinous.
Yet the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management asserted that average costs for most URM buildings would be about $11 a square foot, a fraction of past cost ranges.
“This will only be $11 a square foot,” testified Jonna Papaefthimiou, planning and community resilience manager for PBEM.
The statement shocked many who had served on PBEM-appointed committees advising the bureau for the past three years.
That included Steve Rose of Bristol Equities, who served on the URM Support Committee that began meeting in mid-2015. His company owns 35 Portland apartment buildings, 10 of which are in Northwest Portland. Four of those are on the city’s URM list.
“It’s absurd, it’s completely absurd,” Rose said of the estimate. “I don’t know where to begin.”
The report was apparently prepared only days before the hearing and was not shared with the URM Building Policy Committee members, whose recommendations are the basis of the proposal brought to council. The hasty nature of the report was further suggested by a misaligned cost matrix having dollar signs on separate lines from the associated dollar amounts, a basic formatting error a proofreader should have caught.
In addition to serving on the Support Committee, Rose attended meetings of the Technical Committee and Policy Committee, staying on top of PBEM’s three-pronged public input process. He also served about five years on the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission.
Rose said all of these bodies concluded that retrofitting buildings would be prohibitively expensive, while commensurate government assistance to private building owners was deemed improbable.
Even the PBEM report presented to council said as much, if read beyond the talking points. The median cost for meeting current and proposed seismic codes came to $48 per square foot.
So why did the oral testimony mention $11 instead of $48?
Most of the construction steps in the higher figure—installing a plywood layer under roofing materials, bracing parapets, attaching the roof to walls—are already in city code. They have not been enforced, however, and PBEM reports only a 5 percent compliance rate.
Ostensibly, these upgrades should be triggered when reroofing or other substantial repairs are made, but the Bureau of Development Services has been extremely lax in notifying owners of these obligations when issuing building permits, a pattern admitted by Brian Emerick, an architect and primary proponent of the mandate.
In the words of Papaefthimiou, “it should not cost anything extra because it’s a code that’s already in place.”
It’s all in how one interprets “extra.”
What will change under the proposal on the table is turning all requirements into mandates with deadlines for compliance, tentatively 10 to 20 years.
Roger Jones, who has owned URM buildings on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard and now speaks for the Hawthorne Boulevard Business Association, has been advising city officials on the seismic issue since before Portland’s 1994 seismic code was adopted. When he heard the claim that retrofits would cost only $11 a square foot, he rolled his eyes.
“I took one look at that and said, this is unconscionably incorrect and asked, who in the world would put their names to it?”
The report was unsigned. It contained this attribution:
“BDS [Bureau of Development Services] worked with a local engineer and architect to develop a standard schematic for parapet bracing, roof-to-wall attachments and floor-to-wall attachments that would comply with the Policy Committee’s proposed standard. BDS then identified a pool of 20 URM buildings from throughout the city and compiled basic data about the building structure.”
Amit Kumar of BDS confirmed that Emerick Associates and its engineering source, Grummel Engineering, did the research, which was reviewed by a separate structural engineer on the Policy Committee. That description could only apply to Reid Zimmerman of KPFF Consulting Engineers and the Structural Engineers Association of Oregon.
Emerick of Emerick Architects also served on the Policy Committee. He and Zimmerman were identified in past Examiner coverage for having conflicts of interest in that their firms provide seismic upgrade services that could be in increased demand if broad mandates are adopted by the city.
A Portland Auditor report in 2015 concluded that individuals serving on committees advising government decision-makers are themselves public officials and must disclose their financial interests before participating. Neither Emerick nor Zimmerman has done so.
City Commissioner Nick Fish offered an amendment to the seismic upgrade resolution discussed by the council on May 9. The amendment would require disclosure of conflicts of interest by members of a new committee to be formed to advise the city on implementation of a seismic program.
Angie Even is co-owner of a URM building in Woodstock and organizer of Save Portland Buildings, which advocates for small “mom and pop” building owners. She remains skeptical of the city’s process in developing the URM program.
“They’ve skewed the numbers to make everything look ‘good,’ and if they get away with it, they’re going to pass this,” Even said.