Earthquake resistant, and expensive: Seismic retrofits could become mandatory for 1,000 Seattle buildings

Earthquake resistant, and expensive: Seismic retrofits could become mandatory for 1,000 Seattle buildings

Earthquake resistant, and expensive: Seismic retrofits could become mandatory for 1,000 Seattle buildings

There are more than 1,000 unreinforced masonry buildings across Seattle at risk of collapsing in the event of a large-scale earthquake. The high cost of critical seismic retrofits, however, could bring many of these buildings down before then.

Most retrofits in the city occur when a property owner or developer applies for a major remodel.

Following a 2016 inventory list and report regarding the 1,150 unreinforced masonry buildings in Seattle, the city convened a policy committee that is now finalizing recommendations for a program that would make seismic retrofits mandatory.

Nancy Devine, senior structural plans engineer, said the city has a paid facilitator in charge of running the policy committee meetings, the last taking place April 4. Part of the committee’s task was determining if any recommendations needed to be changed from the 2016 report.

“Through the series of three meetings we had this winter and spring, they didn’t choose to change any of those recommendations,” Devine said.

The current recommendation is that building owners have 7-13 years to comply with a retrofit ordinance, based on the vulnerability level of the structure.

Schools and emergency facilities would qualify as critical, Devine said, while high-risk structures are those with high occupancy, such as churches, restaurants and night clubs. Structures more than four stories and built on poor soil would also fit the high vulnerability category. Most fit in the medium category, and property owners would have 13 years to complete a retrofit.

A benefit cost analysis conducted in 2012 did not find a favorable financial benefit for the retrofits, Devine said. A “basic bolts-plus retrofit” can cost between $20-$65 per square foot, she said. A property owner would have one to three years to complete an engineering report, then another year or two to obtain permits.

“It’s kind of a difficult science,” Devine said. “There’s no one that questions the benefit of the policy from a public safety standpoint.”

Devine said it was surprising how many URMs there are in Seattle, a large number in Pioneer Square, the International District and Belltown.

“I think Capitol Hill is probably next on the list of density of the URMs,” she said. “That part of the city, the way it developed and the kind of buildings that were developed there, lended themselves to URM [unreinforced masonry] construction.”

There are 140 unreinforced masonry buildings on Capitol Hill, 44 on First Hill and 24 in the Central Area.

“The general concern is the cost of the retrofits. Both the hard and soft costs,” said Michael Oaksmith, director of development at Hunters Capital. “It takes a ton of engineering and architecture planning and permit submittals, and so you have all this time and effort just to get the city to let you do it.”

Oaksmith said the lion’s share of the unreinforced buildings are family-held properties, and typically serve as a reliable source of income. He asks if it’s fair for someone whose retirement plan is wrapped up in a building to have to either pay the high cost of a retrofit or prematurely sell the property.

While the city has offered assurances that there will be incentives and tools to help property owners, Devine said the policy committee did not get “bogged down” with assessing financing initiatives.

“It doesn’t appear that there’s any one magic bullet,” she said.

Some options under consideration include tax credits for low-income and historic buildings, or transfer of development rights, where a property owner can sell their excess development potential.

“It hasn’t taken off as a method, but it’s an incentive that we can offer that doesn’t cost the taxpayer anything,” Devine said.

Oaksmith said that would have a negative effect, because giving up development potential diminishes a property’s long-term value.

The policy committee does see the withholding of property tax payments during the duration of a seismic retrofit as a potential incentive, Devine said, but that option would have to be approved by the state Legislature.

“This is not just a Seattle issue,” she said. “This is a statewide issue.”

Oaksmith said he would also favor this approach to alleviate some of the burden of a retrofit.

State Rep. Eric Pettigrew sponsored bills during the current legislative session that would provide funding for a statewide inventory of unreinforced masonry buildings. The Legislature remains in special session.

“We’re hopeful that that passes, and that the state is able to quantify the problem at a statewide level,” Devine said, “in order to understand that it’s not just 1,150 buildings in Seattle.”

She said the policy committee does not want to see legislation created that causes the owners of unreinforced buildings to sell off their properties for redevelopment.

“A lot of what we’re doing is modeled after California. They did this ahead of us,” Devine said.

Under Oakland’s policy, 85 percent of the city’s unreinforced masonry buildings were demolished.

“We as a city, we can’t control the property owner’s decision,” she said. “We as a city don’t want to write a policy that pushes them that way.”

The policy committee is now completing a final report. That process should take a few months, Devine said, and then the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection will write an accompanying staff report. Once the mayor’s office is briefed, city staff will begin work on an ordinance for the City Council’s consideration