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Phone: 503-823-7300

Email: bds@portlandoregon.gov

1900 SW 4th Ave, Portland, OR 97201

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Unreinforced Masonry (URM) Buildings – FAQ

The following Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) and responses have been developed to answer some of the more common questions about URM buildings and what the City is doing to address potential harm they can cause in the event of an earthquake.

What is a URM building?
URM stands for unreinforced masonry. URM buildings are often made of brick or stone, constructed before 1960, and lack the steel reinforcement and structural connections necessary to withstand an earthquake. The Portland Bureau of Development Services (BDS) estimates Portland has over 1,650 URM buildings based on an assessment completed in 2016.

What happens to a URM building during an earthquake?
When the ground shakes during an earthquake, numerous examples from around the world show URM buildings are likely to partially or completely collapse. When they collapse, these buildings harm residents and people in the surrounding area. A few recent examples of earthquakes include: Italy (2016), Christchurch, NZ (2011), Napa, CA (2014), Scotts Mills, OR (1993), and Nisqually, WA (2001).

Why does Portland have so many URM buildings?
Although Portland is in earthquake country, scientists didn’t fully understand the danger to the area until the 1980s and 90s. And unlike other major cities on the West Coast, Portland hasn’t experienced a significant quake over the last few hundred years. Cities in California and even Seattle have fewer URM buildings because many structures over the years collapsed during earthquakes, or were later demolished following the quakes.

How do I know if the structure I own, rent, or do business in is a URM building?
There is a searchable map and list of potential URM buildings on the BDS website – www.portlandoregon.gov/bds/urms. If you do not agree with the URM building status, you can provide information to BDS to reconsider the designation. Please contact 503-823-7300 or BDS.URMBuildings@portlandoregon.gov.

If I own a URM building, what should I do?
Currently there are no requirements to retroactively seismically strengthen your entire URM building. However, if you invest in a major renovation, re-occupy a vacant building, or change the use or occupancy of your building, Portland City Code may require you to comply with current seismic regulations, please visit the following site: www.portlandoregon.gov/citycode/28673.

Why require the retrofit of URM buildings?
URM buildings pose a danger to public safety during an earthquake, risking death or injury, property damage, and loss of economic use. URM buildings are also part of the historic and cultural character of many Portland neighborhoods. Some are designated as historic structures. Retrofitting these buildings will save lives, reduce injuries, and ensure some will remain following a quake. Portland’s current seismic building code, policies, and procedures have not been effective at reducing the risks associated with the city’s stock of URM buildings.

If I retrofit my URM building, will it be able to withstand an earthquake?
Retrofitting doesn’t guarantee a building can be occupied following an earthquake, but in some cases – especially smaller quakes – residents and businesses are able to quickly reoccupy the space. This adds to Portland’s resilience as a community.

What is Portland doing to retrofit URM buildings?
The City of Portland wants to require retrofits to improve your safety during an earthquake and to protect our historic buildings. To address the danger posed by URM buildings, Portland launched the URM Seismic Retrofit Project in 2014 to develop a policy to require the mandatory retrofit of all URM buildings in the city, and develop methods to assist building owners implement the policy. The project is led by the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management (PBEM) in collaboration with Portland Bureau of Development Services (BDS), and Prosper Portland.

How long will I have to retrofit my building?
The policy for required upgrades is still under consideration. At this point no decision have been made on required seismic upgrades or timelines for them. Once recommendations from the Policy Committee are finalized, they will be posted on Portland Bureau of Emergency Management’s website. These recommendations will be presented City Council who will then make final decisions.

Why is an ASCE 41 assessment required?
An American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) 41 assessment is a seismic evaluation that identifies the structural deficiencies of the building under seismic loading relative to a performance objective. By utilizing the ASCE 41 standardized approach to assess Portland’s URM buildings, we will be able to identify those URM buildings that pose the greatest risk and consistently implement the seismic retrofit policy. A structural engineer will use this evaluation to devise a building-specific retrofit strategy to achieve the prescribed seismic performance of both structural and non-structural components of the building.

How is Portland proposing to help URM building owners implement the policy?
The Oregon State Legislature passed into law Senate Bill-311 which authorizes local jurisdictions to enact programs to exempt property taxes on buildings undergoing seismic retrofits for up to 15 years to help building owners offset eligible costs for seismic upgrades. The proposal also suggests that the City of Portland continue to support and advocate for continued current State funding for school retrofits, extending the implementation timeline for affordable housing retrofits, and establishing an ombudsman to assist building owners in navigating the permitting, financing, and design of retrofits. The Policy Committee was not able to identify any direct financial subsidies to provide to building owners.

What are other cities doing to retrofit URM buildings?
Many cities in California – including San Francisco and Los Angeles – have already enacted policies to require the retrofit of URM buildings. Seattle is currently looking to adopt a policy for mandatory upgrades for URM buildings policy.

Where can I learn more about the proposed policy and provide feedback?
Building owners, tenants, and others interested in this project who wish to be notified about future meetings and other developments may send a request to urms@portlandoregon.gov. For more information and to provide feedback, visit www.portlandoregon.gov/bds/urms.

When will Council vote on the proposed policy?
The policy committee is currently considering policy recommendations. Once the policy committee report is finalized, final recommendations from city staff will be presented to council for council action. Council action is expected later in October 2017.