An updated map of Seattle’s brick earthquake risk shows Capitol Hill concentration

Seattle, you’re likely painfully aware, is due for a really Big One. And, yet, most of the city’s old brick buildings are still not reinforced to modern standards. According to a just-completed report from the city, nearly 20% of Seattle’s unreinforced masonry structures are right here on Capitol Hill, First Hill and in the Central District. The central cluster of 150 buildings is one of the biggest in the city. Below, we’ve mapped the brick buildings using the city’s data showing the few masonry structures that have been retrofitted and the more than 100 in our area alone that will need work.


The Department of Planning and Development “Unreinforced Masonry (URM) Buildings Survey” report completed in July lays it out up front — unreinforced brick is a significant earthquake risk:

Unreinforced masonry buildings have proven over the years and around the world to be the most vulnerable buildings in an earthquake. Two-thirds of the buildings determined to be unsafe to enter immediately following the Nisqually Quake in 2001, were URMs. 

URMs are the brick buildings commonly seen in Seattle’s older neighborhood commercial cores, such as in Pioneer Square, Chinatown/International District, Columbia City, Capitol Hill and Ballard. Most of the URMs constructed in Seattle were built before 1940 when seismic reinforcement was not required by the building code. These buildings were originally built without steel reinforcement and with inadequate ties and connections between building elements.

Here’s the map of the city’s survey findings — you’ll note the large pocket of unreinforced masonry structures in Capitol Hill’s core as well as remaining concentrations in downtown, Pioneer Square and smaller pockets elsewhere in the city. You can zoom in and click on specific addresses to learn more. Note that the dataset is heavily caveated by DPD — there may be errors and we have found several funky address issues. If you find anything weird, let CHS know and we’ll see what we can do to further scrub the data.

The data drop from City Hall is part of preparations for a move toward mandating retrofits of brick buildings in Seattle. It’s a move, by the way, that has been crawling forward since well before 2001. The goal now is to have a plan in front of City Council by the end of this year with new legislation in mid-2013.

City planners, in the meanwhile, are wrestling with four main issue of how the mandate should proceed:

  • Threshold for Retrofit Requirement: We anticipate single family will not be included; should other building types or sizes be excluded?
  • Timeline for Compliance: What is a reasonable time period for compliance? 
  • Penalties and Incentives: What are appropriate penalties for non-compliance? Are there incentives that would encourage upgrades?
  • Financing Options:  What types of assistance might be available?

As we saw when we mapped the previously available data last year, many of the riskiest buildings were candidates for redevelopment. We profiled one of those buildings here earlier this year.

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13 thoughts on “An updated map of Seattle’s brick earthquake risk shows Capitol Hill concentration

  1. Being part-owner of one of the medium red dots, financing incentives for any sort of retrofit is the biggest question that DPD can ask and should be looking into in support of retaining some of these URM buildings.

  2. I love my neighborhood, and I live in one such building, and it’s one of the few I can afford because it’s for people at a certain income level. I can’t afford to move, but I don’t want my economic status to mean that I lose out if an earthquake comes. I think that’s the case for a lot of people. Hope they do something soon.

  3. Exactly, It is no surprise that these tend to be the places with the “cheaper” rents. My pessimistic side thinks that any retrofitting will be passed on to us via more expensive rents. I’ll gladly pay more if it means I don’t die/loose everything in a giant earthquake.

  4. Yup. I live in and own shares of a co-op that’s one of the identified URM buildings. We are of course awaiting more information about what kind of financing, if any, will be available to us longer-term. I’m on our Board, and we were not notified (in July or ever) that we were on the list. I only found out about it because I subscribe to the DPD’s Facebook feed. So they’re not doing a good job, or really any job, of reaching out yet as far as I can tell.

  5. I notice that the two Anhalt buildings on Roy and Broadway aren’t on the list. Does this mean they are reinforced? Or that they were not surveyed? I suspect the latter.

  6. I live in a brick-faced 1920s multi-story apartment building that was originally erroneously classified unreinforced last year in the first survey. Hopefully the new list is the actual corrected one, which is why all the DPD notations.

    Originally, any old building with brick exterior of a certain era was put on the ‘unreinforced’ list, often without confirmation of the actual construction materials.

    So the Anhalts may well be timber and concrete construction, like my old building, with brick facing, which isn’t “unreinforced masonry” construction.

    More at issue for every renter and homeowner is the disturbing lack of dwellings actually bolted and tied to their foundations – which is a shockingly high percentage of buildings built in Seattle even after 1990.

  7. We have been taught to get under a table or stand in a doorway during an earthquake. I guarantee you if your in the “big one,” the only way your going to save your life is to get out of your 3 story or greater brick building as it was built on sand – and will implode during the “big one.” As soon as it start shaking get out. Never mind falling bricks or some glass just get out fast…