Historic downtown faces earthquake risk

Many of the charming brick buildings that make up much of Ashland's historic downtown would be severely damaged or destroyed in a major earthquake.

City officials are pondering whether they should adopt laws requiring owners of historic buildings to make seismic upgrades when they undertake major renovation projects or switch to a higher occupancy use, such as changing a retail shop to a restaurant.

Medford and Portland are among the cities that require seismic upgrades under certain conditions.

Unreinforced brick buildings are common in the historic downtowns of most Southern Oregon cities, including Ashland. They are not supported by metal that would help keep the brickwork in place.

"Old red brick buildings are charming, but they're very vulnerable to earthquake. They will crumble," said city of Ashland building official Michael Grubbs, who is researching potential seismic upgrade requirements for future consideration by the Ashland City Council.

Buildings at risk include Ashland City Hall and most historic downtown buildings, such as those housing Mix Sweet Shop, The Black Sheep Pub & Restaurant, the Elks Lodge and the former Alex's Plaza Restaurant and Bar, Grubbs said.

The Pacific Northwest is facing a massive 9.0 or higher earthquake caused by a buildup of pressure from an oceanic plate plowing beneath a continental plate in the Cascadia subduction zone.

The last massive earthquake occurred in 1700, with another 9.0-plus quake predicted anytime from today to 300 years from now, according to geologists.

"At some point in the future, it will happen again. We're rolling the dice," said Ashland Fire & Rescue Chief John Karns.

He said the majority of downtown buildings would not do well in a major earthquake.

Rescuing people in collapsed buildings is a time-consuming process, with rescuers having to shore up structures before they can enter, Karns said.

He said he believes seismic upgrades of at-risk buildings should be mandatory wherever there are employees and patrons.

"They have a reasonable expectation to be in a safe structure," Karns said.

Pam Hammond, co-owner of Paddington Station gift store, voluntarily did a seismic retrofit of her 1903 building when it underwent a major remodel that wrapped up in 2004.

The masonry building is now reinforced with metal girders.

"We did it for the safety of the building," she said. "We wanted to protect our employees and customers should an earthquake happen. We care about the historic importance of the building. What a jewel it is to the downtown."

Hammond said she doesn't know whether Ashland should make seismic retrofits mandatory when buildings undergo major remodeling projects.

Building owners might back out of doing needed improvements and maintenance if they were faced with seismic upgrade costs, she said.

"I'd hate to see building owners not care for buildings," Hammond said.

She said she does recommend that owners voluntarily retrofit their buildings to protect lives and their investment.

Hammond said she doesn't remember off-hand how much the seismic improvements added to the cost of the Paddington Station remodeling project.

Seismic retrofits can run from thousands of dollars to millions of dollars, depending on the type and size of building and the improvements needed, said Tom Walker, project manager for Ashland-based Adroit Construction Co. Inc.

"In the city of Ashland, it would probably run in the thousands to tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands," Walker said.

He said he doesn't have an opinion on whether seismic retrofits should be mandatory in Ashland under certain conditions.

In Medford, Walker said he has seen some building owners ask for remodeling estimates but then back out of projects after seeing the cost of required seismic retrofits.

Some people have decided not to buy buildings after learning about seismic retrofit costs, he said.

"Everyone would love to see all buildings as safe as possible," Walker said. "The question is, at what cost?"

Cameron Harris, a professional engineer with Ciota Engineering in Ashland, said he also believes some building owners might decide against doing renovation projects if they didn't have enough money to pay for seismic upgrades.

But Harris said he thinks seismic retrofits should be mandatory under certain conditions.

"As a structural engineer, I personally think it's a good idea for safety," he said. "In a seismic event, my job is to protect the public."

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

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