Portland building officials have agreed to remove McMenamins' venerable Crystal Ballroom from its list of brick buildings vulnerable to earthquakes after the company proved it had undertaken a full seismic upgrade.
The decision comes less than a month before the city will begin to require placards in buildings deemed unsafe, a mandate that owners of so-called unreinforced masonry buildings have said is overly burdensome and based on an inaccurate database maintained by the city.
The West Burnside concert venue is the first property whose owners successfully challenged its listing in the database since the placarding ordinance was passed in October.
Jimi Biron, McMenamins music director, said the restaurant company had embarked on an effort to fully upgrade the Crystal Ballroom in 1996 and it was completed about 10 years later.
But the city’s database, which is publicly accessible online, still listed the building as only partially upgraded.
The company’s contracted structural engineers had to go through their files, find physical copies of permits for the work and assemble a 42-page appeal with the city, Biron said.
Because the city had approved permits for the work, it would have already had access to many of the required records.
The landmark Crystal Ballroom was one of the most recognizable buildings on the list, and as a result was featured in news stories about earthquake risk and city policies around unreinforced buildings.
“The Crystal Ballroom being paraded around as the poster child of (unreinforced masonry buildings) when we shouldn’t have been on the list, that was really frustrating,” Biron said.
The appeal, he said, came at some expense to the company, though he didn’t know the exact cost. McMenamins has hired the same structural engineers to upgrade all of its buildings in a 20-year timeline.
Alex Cousins, a spokesman for the Portland Bureau of Development Services, which maintains the database, said it should have been updated when the city conducted a final inspection of the upgrade work. But the bureau was unable to locate a record of the final inspection.
“We try to keep the (records) as current as we can, but no system is 100 percent current,” he said. “That’s why there’s a process to work with building owners to upgrade the status of the property. This is the way it’s supposed to work."
Cousins said about a dozen property owners since 2016 have appealed and had their property’s status updated in the database.
The placard ordinance would require owners of brick and similar buildings to prominently post signs with the disclosure: “This is an unreinforced masonry building. Unreinforced masonry buildings may be unsafe in the event of a major earthquake.”
The same warning must be distributed to tenants of the building under the rule, which is set to take effect for most of the buildings in March.
The ordinance has attracted a lawsuit from the Masonry Building Owners of Oregon, a nonprofit coalition of brick building owners, as well as developer John Beardsley’s company and building owner Jim Atwood. The plaintiffs argue the sign ordinance violates their First Amendment right to free speech. They’re seeking an injunction before the rule begins. A hearing is set for Feb. 26.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also opposes the ordinance, saying it would reinforce gentrification in historically black segments of North and Northeast Portland. They held a rally in last month against the ordinance, joined by owners of music venues that aren’t seismically upgraded.
City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who oversees the Fire Bureau, said that agency wouldn’t enforce the ordinance because of those concerns.
Mayor Ted Wheeler, who oversees the Bureau of Development Services, said it would continue to enforce the ordinance. It has joint oversight with the Fire Bureau.