One way or another, historic Seattle is coming down

For those in Seattle worried that gentrification is rapidly making the city unaffordable and resulting in the destruction of those brick monuments to the Emerald City’s past, there’s a new threat to an old problem that appears likely to quicken these losses.

The Seattle City Council is currently considering whether it should make the seismic retrofitting of unreinforced masonry buildings mandatory in more than 1,100 structures around the city. Forty of those buildings are owned by the city and 21 are schools. Many more are commercial and residential buildings, and don’t include duplexes or single-family residences.

The city reports the burden of fixing it so that these buildings don’t come down, literally, like a ton of bricks is estimated somewhere close to $1 billion. The Office of Emergency Management is attempting to secure some financing options to soften the blow many property owners would face if they had to tie their roofs, walls and floors together; the cost is even worse if people need to reinforce dangerously thin walls.

We certainly hope the city of Seattle and, more importantly, the Legislature can provide adequate financial support to assist these property owners when the time comes, and we know it will. Even then, we don’t expect many property owners will take it.

The process a critical risk building has to go through, from permitting to the actual retrofit, is long and tedious. Even with financial incentives attached, many property owner, particularly those holding onto older properties simply as a source of income, will not likely want to deal with the headache. Also, it’s still going to end up being more costly than it is likely worth to reinforce these buildings.

That can only lead to one thing.

One Seattle resident at a meeting we attended a few months back said the building she lives in is an unreinforced masonry structure, and the property owner has plans to eventually sell when retrofits become mandatory.

We suspect this will be a common occurrence when the city implements this retrofit requirement and, let’s face it, the people swooping in to buy these properties are not putting their money on the buildings, but the land they sit on. No, these old monuments to Seattle’s past will likely be razed and replaced with some swanky, unaffordable mixed-use boxes that many longtime residents are fond of pointing a disgusted, wagging finger at.

There are approximately 80 URMs in Queen Anne and Uptown, and another five in Interbay. These neighborhoods are already hot beds of real estate activity, and the floodgates will soon open up when the city council decides to mandate seismic retrofits.

But, like Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections director Nathan Torgelson pointed out, if nothing happens to these buildings, even a medium-scale earthquake could cause serious damage and threaten the lives of thousands.

No, Seattle is between a rock, a hard place and unforgiving tectonic plates that are neither aware of Seattle’s affordability crisis, and nor do they have the capacity to care.