In an interview Thursday on Oregon Public Broadcasting, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said he was "very disappointed" with City Council's decision to delay a requirement to post earthquake-warning placards on old brick and block buildings, known as unreinforced masonry because they contain no steel supports.
These buildings are at significant risk of collapse in an earthquake, and Portland has a more than one-in-five chance of an 8.0 earthquake over the next 50 years.
Wheeler made his remarks on OPB's Think Out Loud the day after a WW cover story that examined the backlash to earthquake preparation, and the power shift in City Hall that has given building owners a reprieve from recording the seismic status of their properties.
"I don't know why we would withhold information from the public that allows the public to make their own decisions about what their plans would be," he says.
The placard requirement is the subject of a lawsuit by building owners.
"The facts are these: Portland has more unreinforced masonry buildings than any other city on the West Coast," Wheeler said. "Fact number two: Unreinforced masonry buildings are proven to be less safe than other kinds of buildings in the event of an earthquake.
"So we know what the strategy is over the long-term: we know we need to improve the seismic upgrades," he continued. "We know that we need incentive packages for buildings that maybe are historically important or maybe that house music or arts venues or lower-income housing. We are going to have help some of those business owners do the seismic upgrades over a long period of time.
"In the meanwhile, I think it's tremendously important we inform the public about the real risk that exists—people who work in those buildings, people who live those buildings, people who visit those buildings."
Host Dave Miller pressed Wheeler on whether he considered removing new commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty from overseeing Portland Fire & Rescue, after she ordered them not to enforce the placarding ordinance. (She subsequently led the bureau in a delay on the placarding requirement for most buildings.)
Former Commissioner Steve Novick was among the critics of leaving Hardesty in charge. "I'd be curious," he told WW, "about polling the chicken owners of Portland to see how many of them have hired foxes to guard their coops."
Wheeler pushed back on the radio, saying he didn't think removing Hardesty's control of the fire bureau was wise.
"I think that would have been a tremendous mistake," Wheeler said, noting he needs three votes to pass a budget and ordinances at council.
Instead, he is going to hold his colleagues accountable for coming up with a plan for seismic upgrades and an incentive program.
"The clock is now ticking," he said. "We have three commissioners, it does not include me, they will go out to the community and they will come back to City Council in a year, year and a half. I'm going to hold them to that."