Preservation League discusses seismic changes

Owners of historic buildings often do nothing because they can't afford full retrofit projects

JACKSONVILLE — Inflexible regulations now often force owners of historic structures to choose between fully retrofitting their buildings to withstand earthquakes or doing nothing at all. Faced with a huge expense, most choose the latter, making the rules counterproductive,

That refrain emerged from breakout groups at a roundtable discussion on the future for masonry buildings held in Jacksonville Friday by the Historic Preservation League of Oregon. It was the first of a statewide series of similar discussions.

How to access underutilized second-story space in the buildings and how to link preservation to economic development were among other challenges raised.

"We want to have communities that can take a pounding and come back in the future," said architect Jay Raskin, who led the discussion by contractors, architects and engineers. Several agreed that current regulations may be hampering efforts to help buildings survive earthquakes.

Jacksonville has 33 masonry structures that date from the 1850s to the 1940s, when most such buildings were constructed without seismic reinforcement.

Those buildings, and Jacksonville's economic future, are threatened both by earthquakes and by the very rules that are intended to protect them from quakes, preservation league members said.

"Stop using standards for new buildings on historic buildings," was one suggestion, said league President Matthew Roman, who led a discussion by building owners and occupants.

Facilitator Paul Falsetto's group of planners, policymakers and regulators said that seismic upgrades for masonry structures should be put into categories so that owners can understand what can be done incrementally.

"If you allow your downtown to collapse, how do you pay for your police department?" asked historical consultant George Kramer of Ashland.

A major earthquake that hit Jacksonville or other Oregon cities could imperil their tax bases, Kramer suggested.

"Because they hold out for full code compliance, nothing happens," Kramer said of the seismic upgrade rules. "But 50 percent (compliance) can be phenomenal."

Roman's group cited a lack of clarity in regulations governing improvements.

"(There's) just a fear of opening a can of worms and a perceived difficulty of going through the process," said Roman.

One building owner wanted to install an elevator, but would have needed to complete an equally expensive amount of other upgrades, said Roman. That requirement killed the elevator project.

League Executive Director Peggy Moretti's group of preservation commissioners and advocates noted the enormity of the issues involved.

"The issue was so big and so insurmountable you want to go to denial," said Moretti. "There is a lack of access to easy, understandable information and a lack of knowledgeable contractors."

Several speakers called for some form of public involvement to help with seismic upgrades.

"You need something like MURA (Medford Urban Renewal Agency) so people can get help," said contractor Dave Hammond, who is working on the Holly Theatre restoration in downtown Medford.

Formation of a seismic improvement district might be a possibility, suggested Raskin.

"I think you need to put a carrot out to the property owners," said Timothy Miller, who has been involved with historic restorations in Nebraska. "You can't do that town by town."

Nebraska offers a 10-year deferral on tax value increases when buildings are upgraded, said Miller.

"One of the biggest challenges (is that) none of the owners were able to afford seismic insurance," said Roman.

Historic building ownership carries a burden, Falsetto suggested.

"Sometimes they don't understand the full ramifications of the building they bought," said Falsetto. "If an owner has a historic building, they are serving a public purpose."

Roundtable ideas will be incorporated into a league report that will include recommendations after three more sessions are held around the state.

 Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at

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