Seattle plans to finally address over 1,100 buildings at risk of collapse in earthquake

Dec 7, 2021, 10:12 AM | Updated: 11:17 am

Seattle unreinforced masonry buildings...

Seattle's Pioneer Square neighborhood. (Joe Mabel, Wikimedia Commons)

(Joe Mabel, Wikimedia Commons)

Seismologists tend to agree on the idea that the Puget Sound region’s next major earthquake is less a question of “if” and more about “when.” With over 1,100 buildings in Seattle that would be vulnerable to collapse in the event of a such a quake, city leaders could soon address that head on.

20 years after Nisqually, Washington still isn’t ready for next big earthquake

Those at-risk structures are known more formally as “unreinforced masonry buildings” (URMs), most of which were built before 1945, without modern building codes. The vast majority of Seattle’s URMs can be found in historic neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, Pioneer Square, the International District, Columbia City, and Ballard. Across the state of Washington, a troubling number of those buildings are also schools, with no requirements to improve them.

Seattle City Councilmembers hope to address that in the form of a newly-proposed resolution, which outlines the council and mayor’s “intent to consider strategies to ensure that all unreinforced masonry buildings in Seattle are seismically retrofitted.”

While the resolution itself is nonbinding, it outlines a plan that the council would hope to begin work on in the near future. That would include standards surrounding seismic retrofits, a way to properly identify and categorize the buildings most at risk, coordination across city departments to streamline the process, and eventually, draft legislation that codifies mandatory URM retrofit requirements.

Why a Nisqually-type earthquake is far more likely than ‘the Big One’

What that would look like in practice remains to be seen, particularly given the relatively high costs such requirements could impose on privately-owned buildings.

“There needs to be a number of different modalities for people to choose to either retrofit, or make it easier for them to tear the building down,” Seismologist Bill Steele told MyNorthwest in March. “If it’s in a historic zone that you really want to preserve, then maybe the public has a role to play in investing in maintaining that resource. One way or another, we need a way to make it possible for privately owned buildings to be retrofit, actually require it, and spread the pain out in a reasonable way.”

For now, the council’s initial resolution will be introduced in its public safety committee on Thursday.

MyNorthwest News

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Seattle plans to finally address over 1,100 buildings at risk of collapse in earthquake