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Seattle considers requiring old buildings to retrofit for earthquake safety

In Washington, no requirements are on the books for retrofitting. In Seattle, only those who have applied for city permits to do remodeling have been required to retrofit for seismic safety at the same time. (KIRO 7)

The City of Seattle released a list of 1,160 buildings likely to suffer damage in an earthquake, as the latest step in a process dating back years to require retrofitting for earthquake safety.

The list consists of all the unrestrained masonry buildings or URMs, KIRO 7 reports. Some of the buildings on the list have been retrofitted, but they remain on the list by virtue of being an older brick building where the floors and roofs were not structurally connected to the walls.

“It doesn’t mean your building is just going to fall down. It just means you’re at greater risk of damage,” said Bryan Stevens, spokesperson for the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection.

Each address is designated as being at ‘medium,’ ‘high’ or ‘critical’ risk, based on the usage of the building. For example, all emergency centers and schools are deemed at ‘critical risk,’ and buildings, where people are constantly coming through, are at ‘high’ risk compared to buildings that sit empty.

California already has requirements to do seismic retrofitting, and the City of Portland is currently planning similar legislation.

In Washington, no requirements are on the books. In Seattle, only those who have applied for city permits to do remodeling have been required to retrofit for seismic safety at the same time.

Several years ago, the city had come up with a similar list of URMs.

“We didn’t have all the details in front of us, so we were making some estimations about the level of upgrades of the buildings and how they were built,” Stevens said. “To develop policy using that list didn’t make anyone feel comfortable. We wanted a more detailed list to work from.”

Now that they do, the department is working on restarting the conversation about legislation at the city level.

Hesitation over the years has come from building owners who find retrofitting cost-prohibitive.

Jack Toepfer, a co-owner of Toepfer construction, said owners have to truly want to save a building to spend the money.

Retrofitting one of the old, brick buildings along Ballard Avenue, for example, can run hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Residential can be fairly straightforward and economical depending on the house, whether or not you have access in your basement, you can get to the foundation and the walls and the floor connection and it’s all accessible. It’s less costly there than if it was all finished in,” Toepfer said.

One address listed at ‘medium’ risk is the old Carnegie Public Library, which now houses the Kangaroo and Kiwi pub.

Pub owner Bradley Howe said any potential retrofit project would mean closing the building during construction.

Even after getting through all that, “everything will go up,” Howe said. The cost of the project would trickle down to the cost of the rent, which could then trickle down to the price of beer.

Howe said he doesn’t want to charge the working man any more than they already do.

“We know that there’s a cost, so looking at the state level, creating more awareness of the issue at the state level we think will help,” Stevens said.

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