Hundreds of Seattle buildings in need of seismic upgrades

SEATTLE -- The 2001 Nisqually earthquake rocked the earth 30 feet underground, but the impact rattled Seattle nearly 50 miles away.

The shaking shattered the brick and mortar in some of the city's oldest buildings.

"Looking across the street it just looked like the brick building was moving, and it occurred to me we're having an earthquake," said David Bovard, who watched bricks nosedive off a Capitol Hill Building during the quake.

Yet when he opened Pioneer Pet Feed & Supply in Pioneer Square -- home to some of the most seismic vulnerable buildings -- Bovard didn't consider the threat of an earthquake.

"I feel like this building has been through a multitude of presidents, and world wars, prohibition and all sorts of historic events and it's still standing," he said.

His shop's brick-and-mortar walls are part of Seattle's personality, but they're also earthquake vulnerable. Bovard said his shop's building near Washington and First Avenue was built in 1889. Seattle's city planner says most buildings built prior to 1940 are at risk because they lack steel reinforcement and structural connections needed to stand up to seismic motion.

Bovard's building is one of 929 buildings the city has deemed and mapped as URMs, or unreinforced masonry, that could crumble with significant seismic shaking. Of those 929, the city's Department of Planning and Development said only about 15 percent have been retrofitted, including 16 government buildings and 50 schools.

Right now there are no retrofit requirements, but that could soon change.

Elliot Bay Bookstore reinforced its Capitol Hill building. Last year the building's owner, Hunter's Capital, opened up the bookstore's doors to our camera and showed us its seismic upgrades. They spent $1.5 million on the 95-year old building.

"We're all concerned with life safety, which I think is the most important thing and I think they city should at least look at incentives to landlords," Michael Oaksmith said last year.
Other Seattle businesses may be asked to do the same. Seattle's Department of Planning and Development said it will ask the City Council in June to consider requiring retrofits for all URM buildings.

Planning and Development's Sandy Howard, also Project Manager for the policy's development, said the city has launched several reports including a cost benefit analysis.

Howard said one of the options is to require every URM to do a retrofit, and the building's risk category, would determine how much time property owners would have to make the upgrades. The city is also considering landowner incentives.

For pet store owner Bovard, he can accept a city mandate, but with this caveat.

"The city telling me what to do, I'd like to think it's in the matter of safety, as long as it's reasonable," he said.