There’s a striking map in architect Mary Waelder’s “When Seattle Shakes” online exhibit that shows each and every unreinforced masonry building in the city of Seattle.
Red dots pile upon red dots in some areas and almost every neighborhood has at least a few.
The map is a stark reminder about the seismic future of historic buildings in our city.
“It’s not if, it’s really when, right?” said Eugenia Woo, director of preservation services at Historic Seattle.
“When Seattle Shakes,” presented by AIA Seattle (a chapter of the American Institute of Architects) and the Seattle Architecture Foundation, will be available to view online through July 17. It was meant to be a physical exhibit at Seattle’s Center for Architecture & Design, and moved online due to the pandemic. Organizers hope it will educate the public and serve as a resource for those who want to help effect change, including an “actions and opportunities” page.
“Even in the last 20 years” since the Nisqually earthquake shook Western Washington, “seismologists and all the experts — who, this is their life, they study this and they know the potential danger — they’re always finding new faults,” Woo said.
There’s also a map of those in “When Seattle Shakes,” and they crisscross the city in a concerning way that seems to coincide with all those red dots. This is something Waelder, curator and researcher for the exhibit, became fascinated with as she got to know her new city.
“I’ve lived here for a few years and it’s my first time living long term in a seismic area,” Waelder said. “So moving here as an architect, I had to learn a lot about issues that I didn’t really have to know before. I think through that learning process, I wanted to just be able to share that information with other people and engage with it more effectively. My area of work is historic preservation, so I could see how the overlap between seismic preparedness and historic preservation is a more complicated issue than people would initially think.”
In fact, it’s such a complex (and expensive) issue, the city of Seattle has been putting off doing something about it for decades.
The last two serious attempts to require upgrades to unreinforced masonry buildings, referred to in the exhibit as URMs, failed. The first, new laws enacted in the mid-1970s, were quickly repealed because of pushback (over the expense). Another attempt in the first decade of this century was eventually mothballed, and while committee work continues, there’s no real push amid other pressing (and expensive) problems, like homelessness and vaccinations.
There are occasional reminders that bring the looming problem to the forefront — like the recent 20th anniversary of the 6.8 magnitude Nisqually earthquake in February 2001 — but those rarely lead to helpful strategies.
“Awareness is better than ignorance, but on the other hand, the sort of alarmist response sometimes leads to a push to tear down buildings because it’s faster and easier, rather than putting in the careful work to upgrade them,” Waelder said. “And throughout this exhibit, what I am trying to share is that it is worth investing in these aspects of our urban infrastructure and our historic building stock, which isn’t really treated as infrastructure by the city the way that utilities or transportation or other assets we have are, but nevertheless provides a public value and deserves that kind of investment.”
“When Seattle Shakes” offers two case studies in Seattle — the soaring Suzzallo Library on the University of Washington campus and the more utilitarian Washington Hall in the Central District — and takes a look at similar efforts in San Francisco, Istanbul and Tokyo. Using graphics outlining work done, historical photos and easy-to-understand concepts, Waelder lays out the upgrades that had to be done to keep the vastly different buildings viable.
Suzzallo, with its majestic reading room, was one of the most endangered buildings on the UW campus — most notably, its walls were not attached to the foundation — before a retrofit to upgrade it with steel braces and other measures.
Historic Seattle purchased Washington Hall in 2009 and did a major renovation that included some seismic work to keep the building’s brick facade from falling during a quake. It’s a best-case outcome for what was once an important neighborhood building. How many more will be preserved before our next quake? We’re long overdue for a monster, scientists say, but there’s almost no civic enthusiasm for the effort.
“It shouldn’t be political, but oftentimes decisions become so because it’s not popular and because it could cost people money — just sort of the conundrum that we know the mandate is important because we want public safety,” Woo said. “Safety is important. But at the same time, it’s not inexpensive to upgrade buildings and many people can’t afford it. And it could be disruptive if a building’s occupied with tenants. The city’s not offering funding to owners to do the rehab. So we’re just kind of stuck.”
Not every old building has historic value, of course. But all are a public safety issue. And there are other reasons to consider preserving and upgrading them, Waelder said. For one, communities of color tend to be disproportionately affected. “Retrofitting,” as she writes in the exhibit, “just won’t happen if small businesses and marginalized communities can’t afford to do the work.” She also notes that development, rather than reuse, is a huge waste of energy and resources.
Waelder thinks there’s a way to satisfy all stakeholders, it will just take a lot of thought and work.
“I would just really like to see well-considered development that maintains the sort of community linkages that happen when you have the structures that have been in a neighborhood for a long time, instead of wiping them out through gentrification,” she said. “I do think that Seattle has a housing issue and needs more housing. I just also would like to see that done in a way that supports or reuses historic elements rather than erasing them.”