Maybe ‘U’ should be for urgency

Preservationists ask city to provide incentives to help pay for seismic upgrades of historic buildings

By Angela Webber

Red “U” signs are posted on 32 Portland buildings. The “U” stands for “unsafe”; however, the designation isn’t intended to alert tenants or patrons, but rather warn firefighters that they should be particularly careful when fighting fires in these buildings.

For preservation advocates, however, each “U” is a reminder of a problem facing Portland’s historic buildings: unreinforced masonry.

By itself, unreinforced masonry isn’t enough to draw a “U.” But its presence may indicate the age of the building and contribute to other problems. A building could have unprotected wood framing that could be compromised, or a building could have contents that absorb a lot of water and create downward pressure. These buildings need upgrades, preservationists say. And they want the city to help.

“You won’t be able to preserve these buildings if owners can’t afford to keep them,” said Anne Naito-Campbell, whose family owns a number of historic buildings in the city. She called for creation of an incentive program to “fund renovation of ‘U’ buildings.”

On Friday, the city convened a symposium of historic preservationists and other stakeholders, including Naito-Campbell, to discuss the issues surrounding historic resources in the central city as part of the Central City 2035 Plan. Overwhelmingly, that group asked the city to consider establishing incentive programs for seismic upgrades of historic buildings with unreinforced masonry.

“There’s no question that any public subsidy available to help offset high cost of seismic rehabilitation is an incentive,” Venerable Properties President Art DeMuro said. His company specializes in historic redevelopment, but the economic downturn has created challenges, he said.

DeMuro attributes the success of his company’s previous historic renovations to a seismic loan program through the Portland Development Commission. Venerable Properties upgraded the White Stag Block, the Mason-Ehrman Building in Old Town and the Telegram Building at 11th Avenue and Washington Street – all with help from a low-interest seismic loan from the PDC.

“PDC has gone a different direction in the past five years,” DeMuro said. “The urban renewable money that used to fund these loans is going toward fewer, larger projects that PDC considers ‘catalytic.’

“PDC is not project-driven anymore, as much as job-driven.”

It’s a sign of the economic times, but it’s slowing some historic preservation projects that might otherwise happen, DeMuro said.

One of Venerable Properties’ buildings, at Northwest Fifth Avenue and Flanders Street, could use a lot of work, DeMuro said. The unreinforced masonry building needs a seismic upgrade – and a new roof, an elevator and mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems.

“If the building needs $200 per square foot of investment, about $40 of that is seismic,” DeMuro said.

However, if the city were able to provide a subsidy for the seismic portion of the project, that would be an incentive for his company to consider, he said.

“Personally, I would love to see a PDC program,” said architect Fredrick Zal, who performs historic preservation work. Zal said he has reached out to the city and offered his services at a discount for work on historic preservation projects.

“There are a number of buildings that are really beautiful,” Zal said. “Over time, property owners will restore these buildings. I would love to see them do the work, but it’s not cost-effective.”

One of the reasons that such projects could use incentives is that the cost of steel – the primary material used in seismic framing – keeps going up, Zal said.

Another problem is that a seismic upgrade lacks a payoff for the owner – unless the work is able to prevent a building from collapsing in an earthquake, the financial payoff is difficult to quantify.

“You can redo an interior, add finishes, or petition a space such that it lends itself to more occupancy, and you can upgrade mechanical, electrical or plumbing systems – all those things will justify higher rents. Seismic upgrades will certainly make a building safer, but tenants won’t pay higher rents because of that upgrade,” DeMuro said. “It’s a conundrum.”

With the earthquake that devastated Japan still in the public consciousness, Bosco-Milligan Foundation Executive Director Cathy Galbraith told planners at Friday’s seminar that now is the time to ask people to invest in seismic upgrades.

“If we can’t do it now, we’ll never be able to do it,” she said.

List of unsafe properties

Check Daily Journal of Commerce website.