By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
“These are called URMs,” said Bernie Kay, a mechanical engineer and a shareholder of the West Kong Yick building, a URM. “Unreinforced masonry buildings. You cannot even build buildings like this anymore.”
The West Kong Yick — one of an estimated 1,164 URM buildings in Seattle, a disproportionate amount of which are located in Pioneer Square and Chinatown — was built at the turn on the century in 1910, by more than 170 Chinese investors who pooled their money, incorporated as the Kong Yick Investment Company. Kay said that at the time, people had no concept of the fragility of these buildings in the event of an earthquake — the financial damage and the potential loss in life.
“The floor joists were kind of — they kind of built a little notch inside the brick and the floor joists kind of fit inside the little notch,” said Kay. “So in an earthquake, the walls will shake independently of the floor, and it may become loose and pancake down and kill everyone down below.” (See figure 1.)
History of retrofitting in Seattle
The City of Seattle has struggled with retrofitting policies and in the past, had focused on implementing rehabilitation policies for specific districts — namely Pioneer Square, according to “Planning for Seismic Rehabilitation,” a book by Eugene Zeller. In 1973, ordinances applying only to that district were passed requiring minimum maintenance requirements and rehabilitation for URMs.
According to Zeller, notices were sent out and four years later, in 1977, only 18 out of 143 had made efforts toward compliance. At the time, increasing rents in these buildings to offset the high cost of rehabilitation was deemed as unrealistic. There were lengthy hearings, and the rehabilitation requirements were appealed. Beyond a modest requirement involving bracing parapets (terra cotta cornice tile fell from a multi-story building onto the sidewalk below in 1975, triggering a motion to identify all hazardous parapets), implementing mandatory URM rehab generally failed at that time.
However, a current policy that has worked applies to existing buildings, according to Zeller. When a building undergoes a substantial remodel, its seismic risks must be mitigated. As a result, rehabilitation is mandatory — when triggered by a proposed remodel.
“It’s the only time these older buildings are [retrofitted, currently],” said Bryan Stevens, spokesperson for the City of Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections. “If someone comes in and does a substantial remodel of a building — or have plans to change the use of a building — like if they are adding more people to the space — these are the things that would trigger a permit.”
Recently, partly spurred on by the recent earthquakes in Japan, including the devastating April 2011 Fukushima quake, and by California’s own progresses and setbacks revolving around retrofitting ordinances, the City of Seattle is exploring mandatory retrofitting anew. It’s an endeavor that echoes a lot of challenges that the city has encountered in the past, namely cost and return-on-investment.
Language and cultural barriers
Kay made it a point to say that even though he is an engineer by education and vocation, he and his board still hired another engineer whose speciality is in structural engineering.
According to a not-yet-released report from the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation & Development Authority (SCIDpda), “URM-RRIO Pilot Project Report,” about 62.7 percent of people in Chinatown–International District (CID) speak a language other than English at home — compared to 22.1 percent citywide.
This is reinforced by a 2006 City of Seattle, Department of Planning & Development report (“Little Saigon & Chinatown/International District, Impacts on Local Businesses from Proposed LU/Zoning Changes & Dearborn Street Mixed-Use Shopping Center”), which polled 220 business owners in the area — not residents — and found that about 14 percent of business owners in CID cannot speak English at all. Another 27 percent speak two or more languages — one of which is English — but it’s unclear, the level of proficiency these owners are in English.
Kay, with his family roots tied to the Kong Yick buildings, more than a century ago, is a fluent, native English speaker — he said he only knows a handful of phrases and words in Chinese. He didn’t become involved in the management of the West Kong Yick building until later in life, after his father became sick. As such, he brings with him a Westernized viewpoint that can sometimes be at odds with how things have been done in CID.
“Everyone hires people they can talk with, down here,” said Kay, after pointing out some CID remodel projects — which were subject to mandatory seismic retrofitting — that ran over budget because certain things may have been beyond the scope of expertise for the hired architects or engineers — or perhaps there are cultural and language barriers at work, with a certain lack of understanding of what certain upgrades entail, on the part of building owners.
The high cost of safety
“In terms of technical requirements,” said Stevens, “we’re looking at the Bolts-Plus model. It’s really about reconfiguring the connections between walls and floors. … That’s preliminary. At this point, it’s still hard to get into the details. We’re still getting into the policy level.”
The Bolts-Plus method of seismic retrofit for URMs was adopted by the City of San Francisco in 1992 and was completed in 2006. It is generally regarded as one of the least intrusive programs for property owners, as it simultaneously provides significant reduction of risk of building collapse in an earthquake — by keeping walls from bowing out.
“The State of California mandated seismic retrofitting at the state level,” said Stevens. “They have more frequent seismic activity, lots of earthquakes in the late 1980s and 1990s. … But [Seattle] doesn’t have this mandated at the state level, but we’re discussing it locally.”
“And this is not just a Seattle issue, but also a state issue. They are URMs in Tacoma, Olympia. We’re working with Rep. [Eric] Pettigrew (D–37th district) in raising awareness at the state level.”
As the West Kong Yick building aged since its inception, as earthquakes occurred, efforts at strengthening the building were made over the decades — a fairly common practice for CID URM buildings.
In the 1960s, small ties were installed — metal strips that connected the wall to the floors, so the building will move as a whole unit in the event of a quake. “These are the ones we took out,” said Kay, pointing out ragged, thin-looking ties — contrasting them with the ones he is having installed — several inches wide, rigid, and strong.
“So this is the typical one,” he said, pointing to the old, small tie. “They drilled a hole in the brick, you stick those through the square plates on the outside of the building, and they bolted them in. You can see there are four or five nail [holes]. In most buildings I look at, they nail these to the floor, not the floor joists. The floor joists are the structural part of the building, the floor boards are not. [These old ties are] undersized, and they were installed improperly.” (See figure 2.)
According to “Seattle Unreinforced Masonry Retrofit Policy: Benefit Cost Analysis,” prepared by Gibson Economics and CollinsWoerman (updated April 2014), the financial burden in retrofitting URMs is significant. The cost can range from $20 to $50 per square foot — and far beyond. Base-level retrofitting only increases the chances that tenants can safely exit a building in the event of a disruptful earthquake — it does not guarantee that the building will be fit to conduct business in, or even fit to stand, post-quake. The pay-off for this level of retrofitting is measured in human life.
According to the report, an analysis determined that “for every $100 spent by a building owner to retrofit a URM, the long-term benefit in avoided losses (in present value) is $3.30. When death and casualties are monetized using FEMA multipliers, the total benefit more than doubles, but is still only $7.60 for every $100 spent.”
Only a small number of building owners, particularly those who can stand to increase lease rates, can bear this cost. But in general — and particularly for owners in the CID and Pioneer Square, the cost of seismic retrofitting “would be very large and would significantly exceed the expected increase in benefit.”
Thus, retrofitting — particularly mandatory retrofitting — is very unattractive to most owners. The report states that analysis shows that if the City of Seattle were to require retrofits, it’s more likely that these historical URMs will be lost anyway — due to owner demolition.
Race and social justice concerns
Based off of 2010 U.S. Census data, a high concentration of URM buildings coincide with areas with below average incomes. The SCIDpda report states that cost of retrofitting Pioneer Square and CID URMs range from $6/square feet to $130/square feet (seismic retrofit alone), “for a per-project total of $120,000 to more than $4 million.”
Additionally, some buildings do not qualify for the Bolts-Plus retrofit and will require a number of strategies that may be employed in these instances — such as, but not limited to, seismic bracing, strengthening walls with a reinforced concrete layer, and placing reinforced concrete ribs or structural plating within the walls — all of which will incur substantially higher costs.
“Some residential buildings [in the CID], hold single occupancy rooms (SROs),” said Cara Bertron, Real Estate Lab Coordinator at IDEA Space, a program of SCIDpda.
“And property owners don’t need to charge high rents to cover the building’s carrying costs. This is a naturally affordable type of housing. A lot of property owners here provide affordable housing as a service goal to the community. Some of these URMs have been in the community for decades. [Some of them] are not looking to turn a profit.”
“There’s this great service being provided,” said Bertron, “but retrofitting will require a big investment of capital. Some property owners have money to do the retrofit. Some would need to take out a bank loan. For some, taking out that loan is possible — for others, it’s not.”
Faye Hong is a representative for the Hop Sing Association (formerly Hop Sing Tong) in Seattle, which owns a building on the 500 block of Maynard, which houses Honey Court Restaurant, and the Gom Hong on the 500 block of Seventh Avenue South (the site of the former China Gate Restaurant). Hong has been in Seattle’s Chinatown for more than 60 years.
“So my observation is that … over the years, what [property owners] do is they collect rent and don’t do [much] else. So [these buildings] go into disrepair, they go into violations, none of the work is done to make them safe [to inhabit]. So over the years, they just shut down and aren’t invested into. I think that’s wrong.”
“[Maybe] these buildings [should] change hands,” Hong said. “Have somebody that really wants to put money into them. Revitalize this area. Right now, we’ve got all these buildings right in the central part of the city, [upper floors] just sitting vacant, with rats [inside] and pigeons on the roofs. I really hate seeing that.”
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.