The Big One and the Strict One: Earthquakes and Stringent Building Codes Put Portland’s Old Buildings at Risk

Out with the old and in with the new — Portland seems to be taking the adage to heart, especially with regards to its buildings.

New regulations have put older buildings at risk as they strive to keep up with standards set for new buildings with more stringent building commissioning requirements in Portland. Could we be seeing the death knell for old architecture in the city?

Portland’s Historic Buildings

Buildings and structures dating back to the 1800s bear witness to Portland’s rich history and offer a glimpse of past architecture. Some of these buildings are at risk as the state enforces stricter safety regulations that owners just can’t meet. More than 1,600 brick buildings have been targeted as the state deems them unsafe and vulnerable to earthquakes. Seismic experts predict that there is a 37 percent chance that Portland will encounter a magnitude 7.1 earthquake or greater in the next 50 years. Earthquake predictions are largely based on speculation as even the US Geological Survey (USGS) states on its own website — that neither they nor any other scientific institute or scientist have ever predicted an earthquake. However, an ordinance has been passed (based on the mentioned earthquake prediction) requiring owners of brick buildings to post visible warning signs on their premises — stating that it may be unsafe in case of earthquakes.

Enormous Costs for Owners

Owners of the brick buildings fear that the warning placards will scare potential customers and tenants — dealing a harsh blow to long-standing businesses. They also fear that the classification will eventually lead to higher property taxes because of the perceived risks or forced retrofits that they simply can’t afford. Owners can’t help but wonder whether they should just sell their property — which would just be torn down — instead of shouldering the financial burden of higher taxes or expensive retrofits. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) even called the ordinance racist — stating it would only add to the gentrification already happening in the state. Rev. E.D. Mondainé, president of the NAACP Portland chapter and an active pastor at the Celebration Tabernacle Church, said that the ordinance was just another form of discrimination — driving black residents out and removing them from the community.

Green New Buildings

close shot of an old house in Portland

Together with the stricter safety regulations, Portland has also put forth green building policies. These policies encompass planning, materials used, construction, energy use, and waste outputs of new buildings. While the building policies are currently limited to state-owned buildings and structures — private owners and companies are encouraged to incorporate green building strategies into their future properties.  Portland already stands among the top 10 states in the US when it comes to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified buildings per capita. This drive for greener buildings is seen as one of the reasons the state is pushing for policies that some consider as getting a bit too close to gentrification.

Portland’s old buildings may be in danger — but they’re not going down without a fight. The state may have good intentions — but basing policy on speculation and pushing domineering ordinances have residents shaking their heads.

Share this post:
Scroll to Top