The price of making Portland buildings earthquake safe

Multnomah County

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The Glade Hotel on 3rd and East Burnside is a classic Portland building. It’s creaky stairs remind you of its age — owner Jim Atwood believes it was built in 1890 — while its new electricity and HVAC systems show its progress.

It’s affordable housing, with apartments going for around $600. But that could soon change.

That’s because the Glade Hotel, along with more than 1,600 unreinforced-masonry buildings, could soon be mandated by the city to seismically upgrade their frames — a costly, yet necessary, project as the threat of a major Cascadia earthquake lingers. 

“You’re basically building a steel cage inside a brick building,” Atwood said. “It’s a pretty invasive procedure. Very invasive.”

But how expensive would it be? For his building, Atwood hired a private firm to find out. The replacement value of the Glade Hotel would be around $940,000. Meaning, according to their estimations, it would cost him over $1.8 million to make the proper changes to ensure it was earthquake safe. 

That price could not only have an impact on Atwood, but also the people living in what now is an affordable-housing complex. 

“The existing tenants will be displaced,” Atwood said.

On Wednesday, at a packed City Hall, Mayor Ted Wheeler and the Portland City Council discussed the earthquake threat and how they would go about affording mandated-seismic upgrades. 

“An earthquake is not going to discriminate based on age or race or income level or anything else,” Wheeler said. 

Wheeler wasn’t the only one talking.

“I won’t be doing business as I used to,” one person said. 

“Mandatory requirements should not be implemented,” another one called.

Dan Douhit with the Bureau of Emergency Management said he hears the frustration from worried owners, but he said there’s more to the situation than that.

“We’re also hearing from a lot of people concerned about the life-safety element,” Douhit said, “and we know these buildings are dangerous in an earthquake so we’re trying to balance both concerns.”

The City Council plans to work with multiple bureaus, including the Bureau of Emergency Management, to strategize the requirements and the cost of a building-reinforcement plan. In a press release, Wheeler said the city doesn’t want to overburden building owners with the bill. 

“Mom and Pop owners have raised legitimate concerns about how the previous ordinance may affect their financial stability,” said Mayor Wheeler. “I take those concerns seriously, and my amended resolution accounts for those concerns while still increasing seismic safety in the mast vulnerable populations in our community.”

There wasn’t a vote regarding a possible plan on Wednesday, but one could happen in the near future, Wheeler said. 

Regardless of what happens, Atwood, a business owner who could be directly affected by the decision, has one recommendation fot the city: “Don’t waste another dime of staff money on a futile project.”

To see if you live or near in an unreinforced-masonry building, click here for an interactive map

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