“How did it get so late so soon? It's night before it's afternoon.” - Dr. Seuss
by Tyler Mangrum
- The Capitol Hill Times -
Jon Siu and Sandy Howard are attempting to spread a message that most Hill people are currently unwilling to hear: many of the brick buildings that help define the character of numerous Seattle neighborhoods are at risk, and so are the people living within them.
“Frankly, people right now are a little bit in denial about the threat that earthquakes present,” said Siu, the principal building engineer for the Department of Planning and Development (DPD). “We’ve been to several neighborhood groups and homeowners associations and a lot of people are saying ‘well, we survived the last few earthquakes, so I think we’ll be ok.’ But unfortunately, the last three earthquakes since 1949 are not the big one that we are expecting.”
According to Siu, Howard and the DPD, Seattle is highly unprepared for the eventuality of an earthquake, despite sitting in one of the most seismically active areas of the country. While new construction projects are required to enact certain safety measures to reduce damage cause by earthquakes, many old brick buildings in the city have received the dubious honor of being labeled as unreinforced masonry buildings (URMs), which are at high risk for damage, and are only required to be inspected for earthquake safety and possibly undergo retrofitting when they are already being renovated.
As a result of the current requirements for retrofitting, the DPD now says that the number of URMs is a pressing public safety risk that will eventually result in buildings being inhabitable for longer periods of time than if they were refitted for seismic stability at best, and a larger degree of public injury or death at worst.
Yet, despite the potential safety concerns, many building owners are still resistant to improving their buildings. After the planning commission in charge of assessing the risk to Seattle buildings released their initial survey, many building owners are already protesting seeing their properties included in the list of suspected URMs.
“People need to understand that there is a risk here, and that their building might fall down in the event of a Seattle fault,” Siu said. “URMs are known to be a problem in every earthquake. They’re the buildings that get the most damage.”
During the Capitol Hill Community Council meeting on Sept. 19, Siu and Howard detailed how Capitol Hill has approximately 90 buildings currently labeled as URMs, many of which are the historical buildings considered to be integral to the neighborhood’s atmosphere. Siu said that helping to preserve these buildings is one of the main goals of the project, as they would almost certainly be destroyed in any large seismic event that could take place in the coming years.
“We’re trying to balance the need to improve life safety while preserving the character of these neighborhoods,” Siu said. “We’re walking a very fine line to keep people from feeling incentivized to tear down these buildings. We don’t want to do things like Los Angeles, which did incentivize people to demolish URMs.”
Siu emphasized that this standard only improves safety, and does not bring it up to a new code. It is instead aimed at reducing building damage and injuries to residents. It does not guarantee that the building will not fall down.
While Siu said that the costs of retrofitting may differ substantially from their estimates, the planning committee believes that the average amount required in bringing these buildings up to code will likely range between $5-60 per square foot. As a result of this potential cost to the owners of URM buildings, the planning commission is currently considering offering financial assistance.
At the moment, the policy committee in charge of studying the URM problem is weighing the cost/benefit analysis of the ordinance and the likelihood of aspects such as financial assistance. Once a proposal is ready in early 2014, Siu says that the ordinance will then move forward to seek approval by the city, and may be in effect as early as summer of next year. If approved, the ordinance would likely require buildings to be brought up to code within 7 to10 years after its passing.