Portland yanks online database of unreinforced masonry buildings

Brick Beef

Portland yanks online database of unreinforced masonry buildings

Older brick buildings in downtown Portland, Oregon. (Ian Shane/Flickr)

How officials in Portland, Oregon, have gone about treating the city’s sizable stock of earthquake-vulnerable unreinforced masonry buildings—roughly 1,600 of them in total including churches, apartment buildings, schools, businesses, and more—has been a contentious, even litigious issue for several years now. Now, in a new development of an ongoing controversy, the city has opted to pull an online public resource that listed—and not always with 100 percent accuracy—all buildings deemed as being not up to modern seismic standards. The list of the city’s unreinforced masonry buildings (or URMs) is now only available through a formal public records request.

Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) reported last week that the database, which is maintained by the city’s Bureau of Development Services, had been “quietly taken down” following a push from the Portland chapter of the NAACP, which claimed that inaccuracies within the list made it “unreasonably difficult for building owners to get loans and investments.”

Saying that the database acted as “modern-day redlining” in a letter sent to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and city commissioners earlier this month, Portland NAACP president E.D. Mondainé argued that numerous buildings that appeared in the database have since been seismically upgraded by their respective owners or were erroneously included. Many of the buildings that appeared on the list, upgraded or not, are in historically African American neighborhoods. The NAACP argued that the presence of the database unfairly devalues buildings and could stunt economic recovery efforts in these neighborhoods during—and in the aftermath of—the coronavirus crisis. The city, as pointed out by OPB, does not currently offer financial assistance to building owners looking to take on often costly seismic retrofitting projects.

“The NAACP calls—unequivocally—for the leadership of this city to remove any and all burdens on these property owners and any obstacles to their recovery from this crisis,” read the letter. “This regressive action by the City cannot be tolerated under normal circumstances, but is especially intolerable during an economic crisis.”

The Portland Business Alliance also wrote a letter to city leaders in support of the NAACP’s campaign to have the database removed. The Alliance, however, did make clear that it does support some type of resource to help Portlanders identify unreinforced masonry buildings at risk of full or partial collapse during an earthquake although such a resource would need to take a different approach than the just-yanked database, and also, ideally, include some sort of upgrade assistance component.

Last year, the city was sued by a group of property owners and stakeholders over an approved 2018 ordinance that would have mandated large signage to be placed on the exterior of older brick and stone buildings that appeared in the database. These placards identified the buildings as falling under the unreinforced masonry category and warned that they could potentially be unsafe during major earthquake events. The court-delayed ordinance would have also required landlords to disclose to prospective tenants whether or not a building was built from unreinforced masonry during the lease application process.

“Portland is thinking small by targeting a small number of buildings built prior to 1994 while leaving all other structures out of the conversation. A conversation without a plan or funding,” wrote Save Portland Buildings, the group that led the charge in having the placards ordinance struck down alongside other organizations including the NAACP, on its website. Save Portland Buildings also pointed out that the city itself owns more unreinforced masonry buildings than any other entity.

Per the Oregonian, the business owners that sued the city to stop the mandate argued that the ordinance violated their First and 14th Amendment rights “because they were being forced to promote the city’s message and were denied opportunities to appeal.”

When the ordinance was officially repealed by the city council this past October, officials vowed to create a special workgroup dedicated to building safety with a specialized focus on unreinforced masonry structures, and how private building owners could receive a helping hand from the city in retrofitting them.

“Quite frankly, we need more time,” the Oregonian quoted city commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who oversees the city’s Bureau of Emergency Management, as saying. “We need a better process. We need to be able to make sure that we’re bringing the community along with us in this process.”

Some Portlanders, however, found the aborted placard ordinance to be helpful. “It’s like living on the coast and you know tsunamis could be a thing,” resident Eric Agosto told KATU2 News. “There’s signs to tell you at least.”