Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Portland Reschedules Vote on URM Placard Warning Signs for Weds. October 3 at 2 pm

In June of this year, the Portland City Council released its recommendations for its staff in creating a policy for mandatory seismic retrofitting of unreinforced masonry (URM) buildings in the city.

Among those recommendations was a direction to:

...develop a placarding ordinance, with an effective date of March 1st, 2019 and enforced by Portland Fire and Rescue with an appeal process administered by the Bureau of Development Services, for all URM buildings that are not retrofitted to a level expected to prevent collapse in an earthquake and that placard shall be no smaller than 8 by 10 inches and shall state clearly in a conspicuous place at the entrance of the building printed in not less than 30-point bold type: "This is an unreinforced masonry building. Unreinforced masonry buildings may be unsafe in the event of a major earthquake.", and return to Council for adoption within 3 months. 

Originally scheduled for Wednesday, September 12th, the vote has been rescheduled to October 3 at 2 pm at City Hall. 

Commissioner Chloe Eudaly has been supportive of this requirement, saying, "Every tenant and occupant has a right to make an informed decision on whether they want to live in an URM."

Owners of URM buildings have pushed back against these requirements, arguing that the city should not be penalizing buildings that are up to code. Furthermore, the city's list of URM buildings is not entirely accurate - some of the buildings included on the list have already been upgraded. For those that have been upgraded, engineers from the city are not always available to verify this

Local attorney and URM building owner Walter McMonies, who served on the City's URM Task Force, points out that the URM Policy Committee advocated for positive reinforcement, rather than public shaming. According to McMonies, "Imposing negative placarding on all listed URMs as of March 1, 2019, will stigmatize buildings that may not even be URMs and will make it much more difficult for the owners to market or lease units, obtain mortgage financing, sell their building, etc." 

A cost estimate from the City of Portland finds that the median cost of retrofits for Class 3 buildings would be $48 per square foot (costs range from $43 to $65 per square foot). But as McMonies points out, banks are wary of lending to URM buildings. The city's PropertyFit program could help fill some of the funding gaps, but capital providers involved in the program still have discretion over whether they will choose to invest in a retrofit.

City staff has been instructed to return to the Council with a final URM retrofit policy for adoption by June 2019.

According to an e-mail sent on September 4, 2018 by Jonna Papaefthimiou of the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management:

The Council
URM resolution passed in June 2018 also directs staff to:
  • Implement mandatory retrofitting ONLY for critical facilities, schools, and government and for-profit assembly spaces like community centers and theaters.  Code changes are expected in June 2019. 
  • Develop more financial incentives for building owners. 
  • Develop cost estimates and a strategy to retrofit City-owned URM buildings.
  • Set up two new committees:
  • one to make recommendations for retrofits to for-profit buildings; and
  • another for URMs owned by non-profits, like churches.
[The city's] next step will be to assemble the new committees.  Thanks to all who have offered to participate!  Please look for an online application in the October update. 
 If you want to be added or deleted from the city's e-mail list for updates on this issue, please email  

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