The Belle Court, a National Register of Historic Places apartment building at 120 NW Trinity Place, was seimically retrofitted in 1996, but not a standard that would exempt it from displaying a warning sign. Photo by Wesley Mahan

Allan Classen
Editor & Publisher

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Council ignores advice of its advisory committee, opens can of worms with warning placards.

 

In recognition of enormous costs and complexities in mandating the seismic retrofit of about 1,500 buildings, the Portland City Council punted on a proposed retrofit program, calling for a year of study.
That didn’t stop it from rushing into the simpler matter of requiring the same buildings to display warning placards. On June 13, without prior notice of its intentions, the council unanimously supported an ordinance ordering all unreinforced masonry buildings to have signs stating that the structure may be unsafe in an earthquake.

A hearing on final adoption of the placarding ordinance will be held Wednesday, Sept. 12, 9:45 a.m., in council chambers.

But even that seemingly straightforward measure has run into a buzz saw. Owners of URM buildings are rehashing many of the reasons that caused the Bureau of Emergency Management URM Policy Committee to unanimously reject “negative placarding” after two years of study.

The Policy Committee member consistently held up as the exemplar of a building owner who voluntarily retrofit his own apartment buildings—and who also supports a broad retrofit mandate—has blown the whistle.
Walt McMonies, a semiretired attorney who owns three masonry buildings on the block east of Stadium Fred Meyer, sent the council a four-page letter detailing why the placarding program is a bad idea that will have cascading consequences.
• The city’s URM Building database was hastily and inaccurately assembled, listing many buildings mischaracterized in a “drive-by” survey.

• The city recognizes its unreliability in a disclaimer: “The presence of a building in this database is not a predictor of its performance in a seismic event.”

• Notice of a proposed placarding ordinance was not circulated before the June council meeting.

• Owners of suspected URM buildings have not been able to confirm their status with the Bureau of Development Services, whose staff members told owners they were too busy to do so.

• Placards will make it more difficult for building owners to obtain loans, lease units or sell their buildings, actions that may be necessary to finance mandated retrofits.

• National Register of Historic Places landmarks must have National Park Service approval before a placard is attached. (The cost of city review and permits to install a placard is estimated as $4,000-$5,000 by Policy Committee member Tom Carollo of Beardsley Building Development.)

• Other types of buildings or those on certain soils also have a substantial failure rate in major earthquakes, a fact removed from the final Policy Committee report by city officials.

• Once a placard is mounted, the owner will not be allowed to remove it until the building is upgraded to a “life safety” standard, which is far more expensive than the “collapse risk reduction” standard in the proposed mandate.

The final predicament has been privately recognized by architects of the ordinance but has not come out in public deliberation. Volunteers who put years into guiding the city’s program now wonder if the placards are a back-door method of imposing an upgrade standard that would be politically impossible to pass through legislation. (See sidebar.)

“Negative placarding is a scarlet letter that should only be given out sparingly and in situations where the owner fails or refuses to upgrade his or her building,” McMonies concluded.

Angie Even, who has built a grassroots movement of mostly single-building owners through SavePortlandBuildings.com, has been joined by several Policy Committee members in raising fundamental questions about the proposed ordinance.
McMonies now suspects the placard provision is being used as “a lever to force building owners to upgrade.”

Carollo disagreed slightly: “It’s actually a club to knock us out.”

Tom Sjostrom, who represented the Building Owners & Managers Association on the Policy Committee, said the real purpose of the URM program appears to be making compliance so unwieldy that buildings are sold for demolition and redevelopment.

Those weren’t the concerns on the minds of council members when they voted in June to require placarding.

Commissioner Dan Saltzman, the strongest backer of the broader seismic program, explained it this way:
“There is an obligation upon us who lead the city to give tenants the right to know, to make an informed decision about where they live or where they choose to work. … Who could be against giving more information to the tenants to make informed decisions?”

Later, Commissioner Amanda Fritz replied to McMonies’ four-page critique of the placarding ordinance.

“I believe people should know if they are entering a building with unreinforced masonry,” Fritz wrote in an email. “It seems it could also reduce potential liability of building owners from lawsuits after an earthquake. While I read and understand your concerns, I support the placarding requirement.”

McMonies agreed that he could not “argue with the right of tenants and visitors to know a building is a URM,” but errors and confusion over the classifying of buildings would not give reliable assurance that non-placarded buildings were less safe than those with warning signs.

Some of the thousand+plus buildings designated as URM by the City of Portland

Some of the thousand+plus buildings designated as URM by the City of Portland

Carollo wrote that “well-intentioned Commissioner Fritz has conflated ‘consumer protection’ with ‘safety.’ The proposed notice does nothing to provide increased safety.”He and other critics of the notice say that for most occupants and visitors of a building, staying out is not a practical option. Tenants would face considerable inconvenience in finding another home and employees will tend to hold onto their jobs in the face of some heightened earthquake danger. Would Portland Public School children be allowed to transfer from placarded schools?

Carollo said a more useful notice would tell occupants what to do in the case of an earthquake.

Steve Rose, CEO of Bristol Properties, which owns 35 Portland apartment buildings, including URMs in Northwest Portland, said, “Singling out URMs is the wrong message, as it would imply that a non-URM would be safe in a major earthquake, which is likely not the case, as evidenced by virtually all major earthquakes that were centered near metropolitan areas.

“The 1989 Bay Area quake caused damage to many wood frame structures in San Francisco as well as masonry structures (some had been retrofitted and some had not),” said Rose, who served on the URM Support Committee, a forerunner to the Policy Committee.

He also served on the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission, which issued a report in 2000 recommending against mandates on private property owners until public subsidies can be found.

Rose supports a different kind of placard: ones noting upgrades completed on a building, “which could incentivize more owners to perform more retrofits.”
Al Solheim, a longtime local developer often described as “the father of the Pearl,” does not think the placards fulfill a significant consumer protection role.

“A placard could be used by a buyer to try and get a better price with an unsophisticated seller,” Solheim wrote. “[But] most buyers are aware of seismic conditions and factor it into their thinking. Remember, many landlords do protect their URM investments, whether upgraded or not, with seismic insurance, and insurance companies do not seem to differentiate whether upgraded or not.

“I think the placard thing is a ‘we got to do something deal’ and placards are simple, but still not without unintended consequences.”

 

Meeting code not enough to avoid placarding

By Allan Classen
Owners of unreinforced masonry buildings will not be allowed to remove warning placards even if they comply with seismic retrofit measures contemplated by the Portland City Council.

That bizarre bureaucratic outcome was discovered recently by citizens who had advised the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management on its URM Program.

The URM Policy Committee voted unanimously against placarding last year, but when city officials overrode that recommendation, complexities arose in their unvetted amendment.

The standards in question are “life safety” and “collapse risk reduction,” the latter an original formulation of the URM Program to hold down costs.

“I am not sure if they are aware, but the standard being used to remove the placard is much greater than the mandatory upgrade requirement for the Class 3 buildings that the URM committee recommended,” wrote Brian Emerick, a member of the Policy Committee, in an Aug. 13 email. “Therefore, upgrading to meet the new mandatory requirements that have been proposed will not be an incentive to remove the placard, as it would still be required to remain, the way I read this.”
Amit Kumar, a structural engineer with the Bureau of Development Services, confirmed Emerick’s supposition.

“Yes, we are aware that the standard required to remove a placard is higher than mandatory upgrade requirements that were proposed by the Policy Committee,” Kumar wrote in an email to the NW Examiner.

“The mandatory upgrade standards proposed by the Policy Committee were nowhere close to a standard that would prevent collapse in an event of a major earthquake as required by City Council resolution. The proposed standard from the Policy Committee was just a small step in the direction of reduction in the risk for collapse.

“The placard is only for information purposes for users of the building and others near the building to inform them that the URM building does not perform well in an earthquake.

“If the building were to be upgraded only to the standard proposed in the Policy Committee report, it would not alleviate the risk of collapse of the URM building in an event of a major earthquake, which is the concern that City Council was trying to convey to the public.”

Walt McMonies, a member of the Policy Committee who has upgraded his Trinity Place Apartments and is upgrading two other adjacent buildings, said the placard requirement will undermine his efforts.

“The cost of upgrading varies from ‘a lot’ to ‘enormous,’” McMonies wrote in a letter to City Council and PBEM. “A second mortgage or refinancing may fund a significant portion of the cost of an upgrade, but most lenders lend based on cash flow, and once a placard has been posted, cash flow will necessarily diminish.

“Merely notifying a person of a danger but not doing anything to protect the person from it is likely ineffective in insulating the owner from liability,” he added.