Photo by Ryan Kozie (Flickr/CC)
Many of Ballard's older brick buildings could crumble as a result of even a moderate seismic event. The Department of Planning and Development is currently drafting policy recommendations to try and change that.

Protecting Ballard's historic buildings from earthquakes

Around 60 structures in Ballard are unreinforced, DPD says

On February 22, at 12:51 p.m., a magnitude 6.3 earthquake hit Christchurch, New Zealand. The results were devastating. The buildings, already weakened from a previous quake, crumbled. 185 people died.

If things don't change in Ballard, the same kind of destruction could happen here. Around 60 buildings in Ballard, mostly in the Ballard Ave Historic Landmarks District, have been identified as unreinforced masonry buildings (URM). That is, they were built before modern standards of reinforcing buildings were invented, in many cases about a century ago. (And remember, the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake probably did a number on some of these buildings as well.)

Some shops and restaurants that are housed in these buildings include the Sunset Tavern, The Peoples Pub, Bastille Cafe and Bar, Hot Cakes, Macleod's Scottish Pub and more. There are also some unreinforced masonry buildings outside of the Ballard Ave area throughout the neighborhood.

In Seattle overall, there DPD estimates there are around 1,000 URM buildings.

The Seattle Department of Planning and Development is currently in the process of drafting policy recommendations that would set the guidelines for requiring building owners to retrofit their buildings for seismic events. Without these retrofits, even a shallow earthquake could cause significant damage, such as parapets falling off or, even worse, causing unbolted floors to fall.

Of course, enforcing legislation to require retrofits is easier said than done. Retrofits can be costly, and some building owners may not take kindly to the idea of spending money. The last ordinance, passed in 1974, only lasted four years before the city reneged on the plan.

Still, DPD Sustainability Strategist Sandy Howard said they are doubling down to try and make it work this time around. The latest effort, which started in 2008 and was shelved due to the economic downturn, is now in full swing.

Some recommendations proposed by a committee include making it easier for building owners to understand what is required of them, encouraging retrofits beyond the minimum, encouraging early participation, building broad-based support and minimizing the cost of retrofits.

Howard said that a ballpark range for retrofits could range anywhere between $5 and $45 per square foot, and in some cases up to $60 per square foot.

According to Howard, the goal is to help preserve buildings with historic character and neighborhood importance. As well as, of course, minimizing damage that could happen during an earthquake.

To help convince owners to retrofit their buildings, DPD proposes incentives as well as enforcing serious penalties if the owner doesn't retrofit in a reasonable time (seven to 10 years depending on how critical of condition the building is in). One proposal has a fine of up to $45,000 if an owner doesn't comply, Howard said.

It should be noted, however, that nothing is final yet. Policy still needs to be drafted, and the legislation needs to be passed by the City Council. In the meantime, Howard said that DPD will be doing more outreach to let the community know about the possibly changes.

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Here's a timeline of events:

  • January 2013 - Draft Policy Recommendations
  • Anticipated September 2013 - Benefits-cost analysis
  • Anticipated October - November 2013 - Columbia City outreach and Education Pilot
  • November 2013 -Recommendations presented to Council
  • Anticipated 2014 - Draft legislation for Council consideration and program launch

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