Seismic retrofits could be required in future

There are more than 1,000 unreinforced masonry buildings across Seattle at risk of collapsing in the event of a large-scale earthquake. The high cost of critical seismic retrofits, however, could bring many of these buildings down before then.

Most retrofits in the city occur when a property owner or developer applies for a major remodel.

Following a 2016 inventory list and report regarding the 1,150 unreinforced masonry (URM) buildings in Seattle, the city convened a policy committee that is now finalizing recommendations for a program that would make seismic retrofits mandatory.

Nancy Devine, senior structural plans engineer, said the city has a paid facilitator in charge of running the policy committee meetings, the last taking place April 4. Part of the committee’s task was determining if any recommendations needed to be changed from the 2016 report.

“Through the series of three meetings we had this winter and spring, they didn’t choose to change any of those recommendations,” Devine said.

The current recommendation is that building owners have 7-13 years to comply with a retrofit ordinance, based on the vulnerability level of the structure.

Schools and emergency facilities would qualify as critical, Devine said, while high-risk structures are those with high occupancy, such as churches, restaurants and night clubs. Structures more than four stories and built on poor soil would also fit the high vulnerability category. Most fit in the medium category, and property owners would have 13 years to complete a retrofit.

A benefit cost analysis conducted in 2012 did not find a favorable financial benefit for the retrofits, Devine said. A “basic bolts-plus retrofit” can cost between $20-$65 per square foot, she said. A property owner would have 1-3 years to complete an engineering report, then another year or two to obtain permits.

“It’s kind of a difficult science,” Devine said. “There’s no one that questions the benefit of the policy from a public safety standpoint.”

Devine said it was surprising how many URMs there are in Seattle, a large number in Pioneer Square, the International District and Belltown.

There are 79 URMs in Queen Anne, and just one in Magnolia. The one in Magnolia is the old Magnolia Elementary School, where work is already underway to have the building reopened in time for the 2018-19 academic year. Among the URMs listed in Quene Anne and Uptown are the buildings that house the MarQueen Hotel, On the Boards, and The Clubhouse on Queen Anne.

“The general concern is the cost of the retrofits. Both the hard and soft costs,” said Michael Oaksmith, director of development at Hunters Capital. “It takes a ton of engineering and architecture planning and permit submittals, and so you have all this time and effort just to get the city to let you do it.”

Oaksmith said the lion’s share of the URMs are family held properties, and typically serve as a reliable source of income. He asks if it’s fair for someone whose retirement plan is wrapped up in a building to have to either pay the high cost of a retrofit or prematurely sell the property.

While the city has offered assurances that there will be incentives and tools to help property owners, Devine said the policy committee did not get “bogged down” with assessing financing initiatives.

“It doesn’t appear that there’s any one magic bullet,” she said.

Some options being floated around are low-income and historic building tax credits and transfer of development rights, where a property owner can sell their excess development potential.

“It hasn’t taken off as a method, but it’s an incentive that we can offer that doesn’t cost the taxpayer anything,” Devine said.

Oaksmith said that would have a negative effect, because giving up development potential diminishes a property’s long-term value.

The policy committee does see the withholding of property tax payments during the duration of a seismic retrofit as a potential incentive, Devine said, but that would have to be approved by the Legislature.

“This is not just a Seattle issue,” she said. “This is a statewide issue.”

Oaksmith said he would also favor this approach to alleviating some of the burden of a retrofit.

Washington Rep. Eric Pettigrew this legislative session sponsored bills that would provide funding for a statewide inventory of unreinforced masonry buildings. The Legislature remains in special session.

“We’re hopeful that that passes, and that the state is able to quantify the problem at a statewide level,” Devine said, “in order to understand that it’s not just 1,150 buildings in Seattle.”

She said the policy committee does not want to see legislation created that causes URM owners to sell their properties off for redevelopment.

“A lot of what we’re doing is modeled after California. They did this ahead of us,” Devine said.

Under Oakland’s policy, 85 percent of the city’s URMs ended up being demolished.

“We as a city, we can’t control the property owner’s decision,” she said. “We as a city don’t want to write a policy that pushes them that way.”

The policy committee is now completing a final report. That should take a few months, Devine said, and then Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection will write a complementary staff report. Once the mayor’s office is briefed, city staff will begin preparing an ordinance for the city council’s consideration.

To learn more about URMs, visit