Seismic Neglect: Seattle officials have been counting earthquake-vulnerable buildings since the early 1990s, but no law requires the structures to be strengthened.

Share story

When Ryan Blythe leased space for his glassblowing shop in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood, he saw a rugged industrial setting that could double as an elegant gallery.

When Seattle building officials looked at his permit application, they saw something else: the most dangerous type of structure to be in during an earthquake.

The Julius Horton building, built in 1914, is like many of its vintage. Its brick walls aren’t bolted to the floors and ceilings. It has withstood past quakes, but they have been mild compared to what seismologists expect: A magnitude 9.0 monster that hits with 2,000 times the power of Seattle’s last major earthquake, toppling walls, dropping ceilings and sending bricks flying with deadly effect.

There are at least 1,163 buildings constructed like this in Seattle, according to a list the city released in late April after The Seattle Times requested it.


More from the series:

The buildings populate dozens of neighborhoods. They house artists and blue-collar workers, craft brewers and nonprofits, schoolchildren and the elderly, according to a Times review of city building records, site visits and interviews. At any given moment, at least 26,500 people in Seattle may be within unreinforced walls that have never had a seismic upgrade.

The brick and stone structures are common across Washington. Few building owners have taken steps to reduce the hazards. No one is making them do it.

Washington lawmakers were warned decades ago about the dangers of this construction, called unreinforced masonry, by the state Seismic Safety Council. But they haven’t passed a law to tame the threat, as California did in 1986. They haven’t come up with public financing options for businesses to do seismic retrofits, as Oregon legislators did last year. Local governments have done neither.

For more than 40 years, Seattle has worked on a policy to require seismic upgrades to unreinforced-masonry buildings. In the absence of one, building officials wait until someone applies for a permit to force piecemeal improvements. Blythe, the glass artist, presented such an opportunity.

The Horton has a 2-foot-tall ribbon of brick that surrounds the roof, a feature called a parapet that is especially prone to crumbling in an earthquake. The Department of Construction and Inspections told Blythe in February that he had to secure the rooftop brick to get his occupancy certificate — but only the 30-foot stretch above his storefront.

He doesn’t have to fix the brick that wraps around the remaining 90 percent of the building’s roof. The other tenants, including a record store, coffeehouse, arcade, a pair of bars and studio apartments, don’t have to do it.

The building owner doesn’t have to, either. No one does — unless they seek a permit. Building officials didn’t require this much until less than two years ago.

“This whole issue with the masonry and parapets, I never saw that coming,” Blythe said. He worries about the cost of retrofitting but acknowledges the city has a valid safety concern. “There’s got to be a way to figure it out for everyone,” he said.

Old, unreinforced brick buildings aren’t the only ones jeopardized by earthquakes. More than a quarter of Seattle’s housing stock was built before the building code adopted seismic standards in 1942. Old, rigid concrete structures are nearly as vulnerable. So are buildings whose ground floors have large open spaces, like garages and storefront windows.

In Los Angeles, all of these structures are required to be retrofitted. In Seattle and other cities in the Northwest, none of them are.

Fixing Seattle’s most seismically dangerous buildings is politically dicey. Doing a retrofit can disrupt businesses and displace tenants. The expensive work can raise the cost of rent in buildings that are often more affordable, while officials confront a spike in homelessness.

“We don’t want to end up like some California cities where they ended up demolishing buildings instead of having them retrofitted,” said Diane Sugimura, who headed the building department for 14 years until a reorganization in 2015. She’s now interim planning director.

Asked how she would grade the city’s progress on a policy, she paused and said, “I don’t know. ‘C’?”

Sugimura praised the work of the department and its advisory committees, particularly the count of unreinforced-masonry buildings over the last year — a step no other city in the state has taken. She said it has taken longer for Seattle to come up with a policy than cities in California because state law doesn’t require it.

“If we could have done it faster I believe we would have,” she said.

Oregon has no state requirement, yet Portland is on track to propose a mandatory retrofit ordinance this summer.

In recent weeks, Seattle’s building department notified owners of unreinforced-masonry buildings that potential regulations could require seismic retrofits.

A city advisory committee recommended this policy more than three years ago. It hasn’t met since 2014. That’s when a city-commissioned study called into question the benefits of seismic retrofits — a finding more contentious than officials have publicly acknowledged.

“At what price”

Not every old brick building is dangerous. Some were built with steel and concrete supports. Of the unreinforced buildings on the city’s list, about 10 percent have undergone comprehensive seismic retrofits.

More than 60 percent of the buildings on the list, some 700, have no public evidence that they’ve been retrofitted. Some owners know the buildings could be dangerous and haven’t found the money to retrofit them. Some have the money but are waiting for the city to require retrofits. Some are unwilling to shoulder the cost.

But they have this in common: None of them have to disclose to tenants that a building is unreinforced masonry.

The Seattle Girls’ School didn’t know that a building it leases was unreinforced until it received a notice from the city, prompted by The Times’ request for the list, intended for its owner.

Rafael del Castillo, head of the private middle school, said it will hire a consultant to examine the building on the 2700 block of South Jackson Street. “My primary question will be, ‘Is the building safe for the students to use?’” he said, adding it is mainly for offices and storage.

Emily Eisenhart didn’t get a notice about the unreinforced apartment building where she lives on Capitol Hill. She likes the look of the Tudor-style building and its forgiving rent, but she worries about a quake. “Things are falling off the ceiling now,” she said of bits of plaster and brick dust. “And there isn’t even an earthquake.”

The University of Washington and The Kenney retirement home in West Seattle have known for years that buildings on their campuses are unreinforced and unretrofitted.

Eagleson Hall, where the UW’s Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences is based, was flagged for rehabilitation in 2004. The university hasn’t found funds for the work, according to Mike McCormick, an associate vice president.

At The Kenney, the seismically vulnerable wing is a three-story Georgian Revival building, with 24 apartments and a dining hall. “It wouldn’t be something we would be opposed to doing,” Larry Foss, The Kenney’s executive director, said of seismic retrofits. “It’s just a question of how we could afford it.”

The Belmont Apartments building on Capitol Hill is one of at least 223 unreinforced-brick buildings with residential units that haven’t been strengthened. The company that owns it set aside money for a seismic upgrade several years ago but the city wouldn’t guarantee that the work would pass muster in the future, according to Morris Groberman, one of the owners.

“When the city says ‘go,’ I’m ready,” he said. “I’ll just charge more rent.”

That is one thing John Bennett says he won’t do.

Bennett owns the Horton and three other buildings in Georgetown that are on the city’s unreinforced-masonry list.

If forced to retrofit, Bennett said he would have to raise rents to cover the cost, which could drive out the artists and entrepreneurs that give Georgetown its funky charm.

He believes the Horton is solidly built. But like much of Georgetown, the building rests on soil so loose it can liquefy when shaken in an earthquake. The risk is so high no one will sell him earthquake insurance, Bennett said.

“There’s no doubt that if my buildings were seismically retrofitted, that it would be better,” he said in an interview. “I just wonder at what price.”

He leases commercial space for as little as $1.50 a square foot per month, compared to monthly rents of $2 to $6 per square foot in other parts of Seattle. Upstairs, tenants can rent a studio with a shared bathroom for $350 a month.

“Here is my main thing,” he said. “I want to keep Georgetown affordable.”

Five miles up the road, Lake Union Partners is doing what Bennett won’t to a historic furniture store on First Avenue. The developer emptied the building of its tenants, including a porn shop and bicycle-repair store, and added steel girders and massive X-braces to resist ground shaking.

The company had no choice. Major renovations trigger a city requirement for seismic upgrades, the only way officials can compel them.

Pat Foley, a principal at Lake Union Partners, estimates earthquake improvements alone will cost roughly $3 million. The developer will recoup the costs by charging more rent. It has already signed up a business consultancy and a public-relations agency.

Foley said he sympathizes with owners who are reluctant to displace their tenants and go upscale. “You’re balancing safety against more affordable rent,” he said. “When we have an earthquake there will be a price to pay for it.”

“Brick and masonry falling on children”

Washington officials know the price of doing nothing. The wake-up call came on April 13, 1949, a few minutes before noon. Eight people died in a magnitude 7.1 quake, four from falling bricks.

“Eight capitol buildings damaged,” the U.S. Geological Survey observed of Olympia. “Brick and masonry falling on children,” it noted of Castle Rock, 60 miles south.

A milder quake struck the Puget Sound region in 1965. Falling bricks killed three people, one in downtown Seattle. “Unreinforced brick bearing wall buildings,” the USGS noted, “as usual, bore the brunt of the damage.”

As evidence of the peril mounted, Seattle’s City Council focused on the cluster of old brick buildings in Pioneer Square. The day after Christmas in 1973, the council approved minimum seismic standards. It planned to expand the requirements to the Chinatown-International District, Belltown and Columbia City.

That never happened. Building owners balked at paying for the retrofits. The council repealed the requirement in 1978.

Over the next several years, geologists discovered evidence that the Northwest has been devastated repeatedly by magnitude 9.0 megaquakes and tsunamis, the most recent in 1700. They found shallow faults under Seattle and other cities, threatening major destruction the next time they rupture.

Washington’s Seismic Safety Council flagged the danger of unreinforced masonry in 1986, and again in 1991. The group urged legislation and executive action to strengthen the buildings. None came.

Neil Hawkins, a member of the first seismic safety council, surveyed unreinforced-masonry buildings across the state as chair of the University of Washington’s civil engineering department. He called the hazards “woeful and frightening” in a 1985 paper.

Now retired, Hawkins worries about the droves of newcomers to the Puget Sound area. “Many of them really don’t understand the degree to which there is an earthquake hazard,” he said.

He is dismayed the Legislature and local governments still haven’t addressed the threat. “There has to be some leadership shown by the government,” he said.

It was a different story in California. State lawmakers in 1986 required every earthquake-prone jurisdiction to identify all unreinforced-masonry buildings and adopt measures to reduce the danger.

By 2006, 359 local governments, 98 percent of those covered by the law, had complied with it.

Counting and counting

Seattle started trying to identify its unreinforced-masonry buildings in 1993.

The building department counted again in 1994. It surveyed city-owned unreinforced buildings in 1995. It commissioned another count in 2001, after the Nisqually quake left 20 unreinforced-masonry buildings too dangerous to occupy.

A count in 2007 was done by driving around neighborhoods. A count in 2009 combined drive-by inspections with Internet searches. All told, the city has counted at least nine times.

After several starts and stops, Seattle’s efforts to require retrofits got a jump-start in 2011, from 7,500 miles away.

A magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand, smashing much of its downtown. Of unreinforced-masonry buildings that hadn’t been retrofitted, 97 percent collapsed or sustained serious damage. Falling bricks killed 42 people.

Two years after the Christchurch devastation, and 20 years after Seattle’s first count of unreinforced masonry, an advisory committee to the building department recommended mandatory retrofits. The committee proposed a lesser, less-expensive retrofit than is required of new buildings. Owners would have seven to 13 years to comply, depending on the level of risk.

The plan was to submit legislation to the City Council in early 2013. But first, the building department wanted another study.

A controversial analysis

This study was a complex, $100,000 job. It would compare the cost of a retrofit with the benefit an owner would receive by preventing damage from a future earthquake. Many such analyses find a positive benefit, as Portland’s did in 1995. Washington’s Emergency Management Division calculated that the benefits exceeded costs for six earthquake-retrofit projects in 2013.

To the bafflement of engineers and seismologists, Seattle’s report found the opposite. Building owners who applied Seattle’s retrofit standard wouldn’t come close to breaking even, it found. For every $100 spent on a retrofit, they could expect to avoid $7.60 in losses, including the dollar value of lives saved.

“The public safety benefit is small relative to the cost,” wrote consultants Steve Moddemeyer and John Gibson. Both had volunteered for the committee that recommended mandatory retrofits and resigned to bid for the study contract. “Ironically, this analysis shows that if the city were to require retrofits there is a very real risk of losing more URMs [unreinforced-masonry buildings] to owner demolition than to earthquakes.”

The findings were immediately challenged by experts, including some who contributed to the report, according to records reviewed by The Times. Art Frankel, a leading seismologist at the USGS whose contributions were cited six times, criticized the report for understating earthquake hazards. Seth Thomas, a structural engineer, said the report likely misused his computer model on how buildings would fare because the damage estimates seemed too low.

Ken Goettel, a California consultant who helped the Federal Emergency Management Agency develop its benefit-cost model, estimated the benefits in Seattle, relative to the cost, are up to 20 times higher than the city’s study found.

The analysis “is just profoundly discordant with the overwhelming peer consensus in the earthquake engineering community,” Goettel said.

John Schelling, then Washington state’s point person on earthquake hazards, was so alarmed he wrote to Barb Graff, head of Seattle’s emergency management office. “I’m concerned that letting it stand could have far reaching impacts on seismic mitigation beyond Seattle,” Schelling wrote in April 2014. He now works for the state Department of Commerce.

Graff urged her counterpart at the building department, Sugimura, not to publish the study.

The building department removed the study from its website. In April 2014, the department amended the contract with Moddemeyer and Gibson and paid them an additional $11,150, partly for “additional review and revisions.” The revised report was posted online last year, along with critiques from Thomas and Goettel.

When members of the policy committee met in April 2014, they were staring at a document that, in the words of Moddemeyer and Gibson, “does not lend strong support to a mandatory seismic retrofit policy.”

Gibson, an economist, declined requests for an interview. He said in a statement that the analysis was “comprehensive, and led to consistent benefit-cost results.” Moddemeyer, an urban planner, said he was proud of the study and wouldn’t do anything differently. “I can understand when someone who has a preferred outcome in mind is disappointed if the facts don’t fall in their way,” he said of critics.

Asked now if the city should mandate retrofits, he replied, “We probably should.” He added, “Every policy decision isn’t always a benefit-cost decision.”

Jon Siu, the city’s principal engineer, acknowledged that the benefits of retrofitting in the study were “probably somewhat understated” and that this has given ammunition to opponents of mandatory upgrades. “This study is not the be-all, end-all,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is save lives.”

The planned legislation has never materialized. At its last meeting in 2014, committee members were divided about whether to recommend mandatory retrofits without public funding. But they agreed on one thing: the need for yet another list of unreinforced-masonry buildings, one more comprehensive than the previous eight.

The city set aside more than $200,000 for the work, completed in April.

But Seattle still has a problem, the same one that sealed the fate of the city’s retrofit requirement in the 1970s: Who should pay for it, and how?

“This issue has been on the table for 50 years,” said Mark Pierepiekarz, a structural engineer and member of the policy committee. “I think it’s going to take some serious leadership at the state level.”

Without a mandatory retrofit ordinance, he continued, “What you’re going to see is Christchurch.”