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Expanded list of seismically risky buildings could spur a new development wave on Capitol Hill

(Image: CHS/Data Source: City of Seattle)

(Image: CHS/Data Source: City of Seattle)

The City of Seattle has added some 300 buildings to its list of old brick structures most at risk of damage or collapse in the event of a major earthquake. Among the 1,160 “unreinforced masonry structures” counted in a recent report, Capitol Hill continues to have the most of any neighborhood in the city.

The latest URM survey added 16 Capitol Hill structures to the city’s 2012 list, bringing the neighborhood’s total count to 152 URM buildings — 13% of all URMs in Seattle. 44 were counted on First Hill and 24 were counted in the Central Area/Squire ParkScreen Shot 2016-04-25 at 10.39.07 PM

Property owners with buildings on the list began receiving notifications this month from Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections. No immediate action is required, but it may be in the future.

Finalizing the inventory of URMs is an important step in the city’s goal to one day mandate all URMs undergo seismic retrofitting. Currently, property owners are only required to retrofit URMs when there is a major upgrade or change of use of their building. The city has been working on a mandate for years and the City Council is not expected to consider legislation until 2017.

The report found the vast majority of Capitol Hill’s URMs had no evidence of retrofitting, although it is possible some work was overlooked. Owners have an opportunity to challenge the URM designation or offer additional information, but they will need to hire an engineer to perform an in-depth analysis of the the building, according to the report.

That could kick off another round of Capitol Hill preservation developments and demolitions. Earthquake prevention work can be an enormously expensive, especially for individual owners who may deicide to sell in the face of such costs. It happened before at the Callahan Auto building and many fear a retrofit mandate would put many businesses and independent property owners in jeopardy. By using preservation incentives, DCI says it wants to save as many buildings as possible.

“The last thing we want to do is to encourage people to demolish these structures,” said DCI spokesperson Bryan Stevens. “Generally speaking, I think people want to see these structures preserved.”

URMs, as defined by the city, are old brick buildings that were originally built without steel reinforcements and with inadequate ties between building elements. They are considered to be vulnerable to collapse during severe earthquakes. 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.

The report estimates that 38% of buildings have undergone some retrofitting work already — some of those may satisfy a future mandate, but some may fall short.

In addition to historical research and canvassing neighborhoods to find URMs, DCI made extensive use of Google Streetview and Google’s “See Inside” photos to look for evidence of seismic retrofitting. Evidence of retrofitting can often be found on brick exteriors: Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 10.28.33 PM

The report estimates that 56% of Seattle’s URMs likely qualify for a simplified and cheaper retrofit, which some already have installed. Reinforcement strategies vary. Look for tiebacks embedded into the masonry that connect the walls to the floor joints. Other buildings use steel beams to supplement the existing structure. In some solutions, the braces take the form of a large “X” while others form a chevron.

Buildings were also broken out by risk category.

Critical Risk — assigned to buildings in the Emergency and Schools occupancy groups

High Risk — assigned to buildings over three stories in poor soil areas (liquefaction and slide areas); and buildings in the public assembly group with occupancies more than 100 people.

Medium Risk — assigned to all other buildings.

Only four Capitol Hill buildings are considered at critical risk and Seattle First Baptist Church at Harvard and Seneca is the only one of the four that the city reports has no visible seismic retrofitting. Capitol Hill has 18 buildings classified as “high risk” and the rest are considered medium risk.

Following the last round of URM building designations, CHS wrote about how some building owners were proactively retrofitting while others were fighting the designation. DCI’s URM committee determined it still needed more information following the 2012 study and commissioned the more in-depth analysis in 2015.

Since 2001’s Nisqually quake, several buildings have been reinforced like the Piston and Ring preservation-friendly development. Here’s a look at how Capitol Hill’s greatest old buildings stand up, with elegance, to earthquakes.

Seattle URM Report

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18 thoughts on “Expanded list of seismically risky buildings could spur a new development wave on Capitol Hill

  1. If we are not careful with how this policy is implemented, Seattle is going to be “safe” but soulless. Developers will use this as an excuse to gut landmark properties and cash in on the development boom. Capitol Hill wouldn’t be the same place without its brownstones and auto row showrooms. Along with the character, the neighborhood would lose many of our more affordable units to be replaced with “luxury” hardiboard boxes at astronomical rents. Earthquake retrofits of older buildings should be funded with development fees. Hopefully the city can purchase many of them to retain as affordable housing stock.

    • And if we get the earthquake we all know is coming, and nothing is done to bring this buildings up to minimum safety regulations, when they collapse they’ll truly be soul crushing edifices.

      My take on this issue? 50% will think this is government overreach, but if/when the ‘big one’ hits, they’ll b!tch about how our government isn’t protecting our citizenry.

    • It’s a case by case thing, but URM buildings can often be reinforced without being torn down – there’s examples all over the city. There’s certainly something to be said for creating flexibility for buildings that are providing affordable housing right now, but painting this as some sort of nefarious plot on the part of developers is silly. God forbid the city trample people’s aesthetic preferences while trying to save the lives of the up to 58,000 people that live or work in these buildings in Seattle.

    • That’s ridiculous. Safety should trump nostalgia and aesthetic 100%, not that they need be mutually exclusive. But there is no reason in a developed country for people to die in an old building for something so preventable. That would be criminal.

      Retrofit where you can, otherwise take a picture and tear it down. Seriously, we can’t save every old building that someone has some fond memory of in their youth.

    • “Developers will use this as an excuse to gut landmark properties and cash in on the development boom. Capitol Hill wouldn’t be the same place without its brownstones and auto row showrooms. Along with the character, the neighborhood would lose many of our more affordable units to be replaced with “luxury” hardiboard boxes at astronomical rents.”

      Where’ve you been? This reads like a post from 2012. All of this is already in place.

    • This seems like better counter-cyclical work than boomtime work. Not that we shouldn’t fix the dangerous parts while we happen to be in a boom, but it would be good for the city to even out the building-trades demand.

      (I was talking to a contractor who is nine-tenths happy and eleven-tenths exhausted about how long the building boom has lasted. He remarked that scheduling is really hard because all the competent teams are overbooked. Does that mean the not-really-competent teams are building some of these new buildings? I asked. Tactful silence from the contractor.)

  2. I live in a medium risk building, so my feelings are a bit mixed. They probably should be phased out and replaced if they cannot be retro-fitted, but at the same time it is true that my apartment is only reasonably affordable because it is located in an old building. So I’m benefiting now, but that justification won’t sound all that important if my building collapses and kills me.

    One thing that sticks out about the map of the city as a whole: UW needs to get on retro-fitting a lot of buildings on campus. I have to believe that the federal or state governments would give some kind of money to make sure half of a state university doesn’t collapse in on itself.

    • ” I have to believe that the federal or state governments would give some kind of money to make sure half of a state university doesn’t collapse in on itself.”

      Current size of the UW endowment: $3.076 billion.

    • @Privilege you know that most endowment funds are specific gifts for chairs, departments, or pet projects of the donors. The UW, or any university, can’t simple take out their endowment to spend on what ever they please. That’s the whole purpose of the endowment. Long term funding…..

  3. It blows my mind that the focus of the article, and of many people, is on the development/aesthetic implications. Collapsed buildings have a bad habit of killing people, and incidentally, don’t exist to provide any charm after they collapse.

    It’s easy to take lightly because the big earthquakes fall outside of recorded history (well, the tsunamis are recorded in Japan, but not locally recorded). But in my opinion (locally educated geologist), Seattle vastly underestimates the earthquake hazard.

    You can’t tell from the surface, but everything in the city north of West Seattle sits not on bedrock but on a massive basin full of glacial sediments; this basically means that the city is in a chamber surrounded by one way mirrors for earthquakes, so everything comes in, and little goes back out. Combine that with the magnitude 8-9+ generating Cascadia Subduction zone (and two other smaller systems of faults) and you’ve got arguably the worst place you could build a city in North America for seismic hazard, except for possibly the Aleutian Islands.

    So bottom line: we should take retrofits seriously, because we’re talking about people dying here, not loss of character. Plus if we’re heartless about people, we might preserve that character if we retrofit the buildings, or if we tear them down but keep the facades, but the buildings will not survive unretrofitted when the Cascadia fault goes.

  4. This seems like a good use of government stimulus funds during the next economic downturn. If we truly see these buildings and their architecture as a public good, I am of the opinion that we should all chip in with our tax dollars to help preserve these buildings. Not only would it allow small property owners to hold onto their properties and preserve the historic character, but it would create construction jobs when the current boom inevitably fades.

  5. Earthquakes aren’t a fluffy political issue. Yes I love old turn of the century buildings just as much as any other child of this city, but come one people we are dealing with human life. Preserve a neighborhood, say lower queen anne and pioneer square. Let the rest be replaced. Cities are fluid organisms not pretty pictures and “charm”.

  6. As a owner of one of these 2 story mixed use buildings I’m wondering where the policy will end up so taking a wait and see approach. From what I understand will cost 15-20% of the value of the building, plus I assume tenants relocated for a period of time. Sounds expensive and would most likely opt to sell out and see another soulness commercial /residential structure in its place.