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Ahead of city’s quake readiness mandates, some Hill building owners fight, others get to work

All Pilgrims is taking the "get it done" approach to URM readiness (Image: CHS)

All Pilgrims is taking the “get it done” approach to URM readiness (Image: CHS)

When the big one hits, and it will, the City of Seattle says that the Union Arms Manor will be among the 800 hundred or so most earthquake vulnerable buildings in the city. The sprawling Boylston and Union brick apartment building was designated as a unreinforced masonry (URM) structure by the city last year. Even though the Department of Planning and Development is still months away from drafting an ordinance that would require owners of old brick buildings to install expensive anti-earthquake renovations, some owners are already taking action.

In July, Gibraltar, LLC filed a challenge to DPD that their Union Arms building qualified as URM. Gerry Pigotti, principal at Gibraltar, told CHS that the proposed mandates would place a massive financial burden on building owners for work that may not even be necessary.

“Since 1928 the Union Arms building has seen multiple earthquakes,” he said. “There’s more to this than whether a building is reinforced or not.”

Union Arms (Image: Rob Ketcherside via Flickr)

Union Arms (Image: Rob Ketcherside via Flickr)

The city has received 17 challenges to DPD’s URM designations according to Sandy Howard, DPD’s project manager for URM Retrofit Policy development. Howard said she expects to see more in the coming months. She also told CHS that around 14% of all buildings designated as URM structures are already undergoing voluntary retrofits. Most of those URMs are in older neighborhoods, including Capitol Hill and Pioneer Square.

Pigotti said that the Union Arms, like other Capitol Hill buildings, were misidentified as URM structures. He said the Union Arms has tie backs embedded into the masonry, difficult to spot from a passing car, that connect the walls to the floor joints. Pigotti said he was still working with engineers to determine if the original supports would meet the proposed city standards, but at the very least it calls into question the URM designation.

“It’s not an exact science, it’s not like saying ‘does the building have a sprinkler system or not?'” Pigotti said. “A lot of buildings the city identified driving around without looking at them in depth.”

URMs, as defined by the city, are old brick buildings that were originally built without steel reinforcements and with inadequate ties between building elements. Seattle started to ramp up efforts to identify and address URMs in the wake of the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake, although such work had been going on long before then. Currently, URM building owners are usually only prompted to make seismic retrofits after they file a permit to do work on the building. Howard said that process is slow, especially with a large earthquake looming, so the city needed to take a proactive approach. The DPD does not specifically inspect URMs to determine how well they could withstand seismic activity.

Nearly 20% of Seattle’s unreinforced masonry structures are on Capitol Hill, First Hill and in the Central District. The central cluster of 150 buildings is one of the biggest in the city. Last year CHS reported on the concentration of these potentially vulnerable buildings in Capitol Hill.

Currently DPD and the URM Policy Committee are waiting for experts to complete a cost-benefit analysis of requiring all designated URM owners to install seismic retrofits as well as alternatives to a mandate. The cost benefit analysis was part of the URM recommendations drafted by the policy committee in January (PDF). According to Howard, DPD plans to complete a draft ordinance in early 2014. To learn more than you ever wanted about the URM process, see DPD’s URM site.

IMG_8953Howard said the city did its best to parse out reinforced from unreinforced buildings during its 2012 survey. She said the city anticipated that there would be things officials didn’t see without going inside, so they set up the URM challenge for building owners like Gibraltar to make a case why they don’t need retrofits.

The All Pilgrims Church is taking a different tact. The Broadway church, which was also designated a URM structure last year, recently started its retrofitting work. According to the paperwork filed with the city, the church will be making alterations to the roof for voluntary seismic upgrades.

Other building owners have decided to move tenants out in the face of expensive retrofits. Earlier this year CHS reported that Callahan’s Auto moved to Monroe following a URM designation for its longtime shop on 13th and Madison.

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8 thoughts on “Ahead of city’s quake readiness mandates, some Hill building owners fight, others get to work

  1. What happened at the Callahan’s building is EXACTLY what the City wanted. The City is FAR more interested in these buildings being designated as “unsafe” and then they’ll draft legislation allowing them to harass the owners until such a time as the owner decides they can’t afford to hold off the City and they’ll sell the property to a developer who will put in more Bellevue-like housing. It’s just another attack by the City on affordable housing.

    Built on Cap Hill, most buildings sit ON firm ground, unlike the landfill of Pioneer Square or other regraded areas. Liquifaction is what damaged most buildings in the Nisqually quake.

    • How did you get access to the notes about the city’s secret plan to fill Capitol Hill in with “more Bellevue-like housing” ???

  2. “Looming” earthquake is a little alarmist, don’t you think? (Unless the P-waves have already made it to your location.) In this area, the USGS talks about devestating eqs as events on the order of hundreds of years apart. The most likely scenario is that we’ll all be dead before the next “big one”. And, I don’t think you’d talk about the “looming” deaths of all CHS readers.

    • Yes, hundreds of years apart. The schedule is roughly one massive 9.0 subduction quake every 250 to 500 years. And the last one? HUNDREDS of years ago, in 1700. So “looming” is probably an accurate enough characterization.

  3. Simply ask your self if you would be comfortable with your kids or spouse living or working in one of these buildings for say 10yrs. Or perhaps ponder if you would be comfortable as the owner the day after a big quake in any lifetime. Would you want your friends to read in the paper that you owned it and did nothing for so many years.

    • Yes, but….I live in a building that’s on the URM list. Many of the residents bought their units years/decades ago, but are on fixed incomes and, if they had to sell, definitely wouldn’t be able to afford to buy another place anywhere nearby. If our building has to use an expensive assessment in order to finance these mandated repairs (since none of this will be supported by City funds), there’s a very real possibility that low-to-middle income people and families here will be forced out and off the Hill. Our building was fine during the last big quake; people who live here know that’s a risk, and choose to take it. I grew up in the Midwest where tornadoes were a possible threat; there are all sorts of risks one assumes through their choice of where they live.

      I understand the motive behind the mandate, but everyone needs to be aware of the immediate economic affects that will happen. Maybe there’s an image that all these old buildings are somehow owned by deep-pocketed companies, but that’s definitely not the case overall. And most of the people who think this is a good idea aren’t going to be the ones who have to pay for it.

  4. The current draft of the policy is too one size fits all as Pioneer Square and Capitol Hill buildings were built on different surfaces. Plus, if I choose to live in a building that isn’t seismically retrofit and I’m a property owner, that’s my problem. I’m not onboard with the line of thinking that this policy is to preserve historic buildings. Placing the burden of the cost of retrofits on owners was briefly mentioned in the draft policy as potentially backfiring with old buildings being sold and demolished. Planning for natural disasters is smart but assuming property owners will pay for seismic retofitting or be fined and then have leins placed on the property is robbery at some level.