Push to get hundreds of Seattle buildings retrofitted before the 'big one'

SEATTLE — Hundreds of local buildings are at risk of crumbling when the big earthquake hits. But upgrading them could cost $1 billion. Now there's a possible plan to help property owners with the cost while protecting history and the public.

Scroll down to continue reading

More news from KIRO 7


Despite years of work, Seattle has yet to come up with a plan to retrofit all those older brick buildings around town. This week, the same group trying to Save the Showbox music venue floated another idea. They would require developers on new projects to help cover the retrofit cost.

Lawyer and real estate investor Peter Goldman showed the engineering plans to retrofit the 54-unit Whitworth Apartment complex his family bought on Capitol Hill two years ago.

"What you see here is the wall and these are the anchors that come out from the wall," Goldman said.

An average retrofitting can cost $50 per square foot. Goldman expects the finished project on his building will cost a cool $1 million.

"So yes, it's very expensive," he said. "Apartment owners, if you tell them that something's going to cost you know $20,000-a-unit to do, for that, you can get an all new kitchen."

And the owner could raise the rent to recoup the investment. But retrofitting a building to withstand the next big earthquake, Goldman says, is like putting new tires on an old car.

"You don't get a lot of credit for those new tires," he said, "but when you prevent an accident because your tires didn't blow out then, you know it's just like that. You don't immediately get a payback from this and that is why many people won't do it."

But the 6.8 Nisqually earthquake in 2001 showed what can happen when retrofits aren't done. Many unreinforced masonry buildings in Seattle's historic Pioneer Square crumbled as the earth shook.

Over all, one person died of a heart attack, hundreds more were injured. And property damage across the region was estimated between $1 billion and $4 billion dollars.

The showdown over the Showbox has brought the issue into sharp relief. A developer wants to demolish the longtime music venue to make way for a high rise near the Pike Place Market.

So Historic Seattle is fighting the project and asking the city to help homeowners hold onto the city's historic places. 

"We also ask the city to proactively work with us," said Eugenia Woo, director of Preservation Services, "to address the issue of unreinforced masonry or URM buildings by considering an environmental impact fee on demolitions that will help fund the seismic retrofitting needs of Seattle's 1,100 URM buildings, including the Showbox."

Property owner John Bennett says he understands what concerns Historic Seattle.

"Historic Seattle's concern is they are preservationists," says Bennett. "They want to save these beautiful masonry buildings."

In fact, John Bennett owns at least 12 buildings in Georgetown and South Park that need retrofitting. He says the millions of dollars it will cost to do the work can make a developer's offer very enticing.

"A developer's sitting there, ready to write you a check," said Bennett, "and so you sell your beautiful brick building because a, you can't afford to do it or you don't want to do it. Or it's economically impossible to do."

And that is the rub for those who have been working for years on this issue. And city officials say they are looking at a variety of ways to help property owners pay for these retrofits.

They expect to have some answers by the end of 2018.