Money, politics, and earthquake safety: Why haven’t we retrofitted Pioneer Square’s brick buildings?

We’ve all been there: You’re sitting in a gorgeous old building somewhere near downtown Seattle, looking up to admire the exposed beams and bricks, when you remember: “Oh yeah, earthquakes.” And then, the inevitable follow-up: “I wonder if this place has been retrofitted?”

Evergrey reader Beth Anderson went through a similar thought process when she moved to Seattle in 2007. Her husband worked near Pioneer Square for several years, and the couple once considered moving into a loft that was in an old brick building near the waterfront.  

“But after hearing about all the danger to the brick buildings in Pioneer Square, I kind of ended up being glad we didn’t end up getting that loft even though I was sad about it, too,” Beth says.

Those experiences led Beth to submit this question for consideration as the last story in our Pioneer Square neighborhood spotlight series:  

“What’s being done to protect this historic neighborhood, particularly from earthquakes? Have there been any efforts to retrofit all the old brick buildings?”

The short answer: Not a lot — at least not on the systemic level.

As The Seattle Times reported last year, efforts at large-scale retrofitting in Seattle have fizzled for decades. In 2013, an advisory committee recommended mandatory retrofits for the more than 1,000 buildings across the city that are made of unreinforced masonry or stone. That call to action was renewed again in 2017.

But it hasn’t happened. And meanwhile, 37 of the roughly 120 unreinforced masonry (URM) buildings in Pioneer Square and the Chinatown-International District haven’t had any retrofits, according to a city count from last August. (Many of the other buildings are listed as having “visual retrofits,” which means the city thinks some seismic work has been done but doesn’t have a record of it.)

Over the past few years, several news stories have examined our region’s vulnerability to devastating earthquakes. (Some of us still get chills when we think about the 2015 New Yorker article that cited a FEMA source as saying, in the event of a 9.0 quake, “everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”) Seattle Times science reporter Sandi Doughton even wrote a book about it.

And yet, here we are, still wringing our collective hands over what to do about URMs. Why is that?

Peter J. May is a political science professor at the University of Washington who specializes in public policy around natural disasters. In his mind, it all comes down to our “political economy”: We have high public awareness, but low public concern.

“There’s no tremendous demand,” Peter says. “You don’t have people marching on city hall saying, “Save us from the earthquake!””

Retrofits are also expensive, and so requiring them could force landlords to drive up rents. As in other cities, many of the occupants in Seattle’s URM buildings are low-income residents or small business owners, which leads to concerns about displacement — or historic buildings just getting torn down all together.

That’s why many believe government intervention is necessary, in the form of public financing or some other sort of incentive that would encourage building owners to retrofit. In San Francisco, a 2013 retrofit law includes the option for landlords who complete the work to add accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to their properties.

At a certain point, Peter says, it’s on our elected officials to do what’s right, even if it’s unpopular.

“It takes leadership by political officials, and there’s a good deal of paternalism that’s involved in this level of public decision making,” he said.

And, Peter says, it’s important to keep in mind that our city’s most vulnerable communities are likely to suffer the most severe consequences in a major earthquake. That includes not just a loss of life, but also problems related to access and commerce.

“If you have damage in a large sector of the city … the economic effects become pretty significant,” he says. “There’s all sorts of spillover there. That’s an important part of thinking about what kind of impacts there can be from something like this.”

By Caitlin Moran
Caitlin writes newsletters and stories for The Evergrey. She's worked as a journalist in and around Seattle since 2010 and is a proud resident of Capitol Hill's Summit Slope neighborhood.