Homeland Security awards PSU $2.3 million for seismic upgrades

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) awarded Portland State University $2.3 million last week to fund seismic upgrades to the Ondine Building and Montgomery Court.

The funds, which are supplemented by $780,000 from the state, comprise the largest Federal Emergency Management Agency grant in the nation. It’s also the first grant announced for the pilot program, said Yumei Wang, a geologist with the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries.

Although voters passed earthquake bonds last November to pay for similar upgrades, the budget crisis in the legislature meant no funding for the bonds, according to university architect Richard Piekenbrock. The lack of money appeared to be a problem until the university stumbled across an alternative.

“We were sort of bemoaning this when Yumei suggested we apply for money from FEMA,” Piekenbrock said.

Wang applied for the grant last fall. Though the university has known about the grant for several weeks, it was instructed to keep it quiet until Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge made an official statement.

“That was okay with us,” said Director of Facilities Mike Irish, “as long as we got the money.”

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If the seismic upgrade costs exceed the grant amount, the university will make up the difference, Irish said.

The funds are especially welcome due to the fact that seismic upgrades have been on PSU’s deferred maintenance list for so long. KPFF Consulting Engineers’ assessment in 1996 concluded that Ondine did not meet FEMA ordinances adopted by the City of Portland.

The city requires such upgrades only when renovating a building to the tune of more than $20,000, Piekenbrock said.

These buildings have been on deferred maintenance “forever,” Irish said. “We’ve had some really bad funding years … schools get cut across the board, so we lose staff, and we lose (maintenance) funding, or it is significantly lowered.”

Specific earthquake mitigation construction plans are months away, but Piekenbrock and Irish suggested several strategies. Classic earthquake mitigation involves securing walls by more firmly attaching them to each other and the foundation, according to Irish.

According to Piekenbrock, the strategies will draw heavily from engineer Carol Hasenberg’s priority list. In Ondine, the concrete planks may be stabilized with iron braces, footings in the garage levels may be enlarged.

Now that the money is available, the university must submit a request for qualifications to consultants and architects, and then choose a team from those applicants. The team will then develop a plan to upgrade the structures to reduce earthquake damage and renovate at the same time.

Deciding how to proceed with the earthquake mitigation construction is a big enough project in itself, but orchestrating the construction and remodeling of the buildings will be more complex, Piekenbrock said.

“We went through that exactly at Smith Center,” he said, when considering seismic improvements. “They were going to put a column four feet wide up through the building. You can’t have a column in the middle of Smith Ballroom, so they got quite creative.”

Ondine presents the larger challenge of the two buildings, according to Piekenbrock.

“You’ve got three or four conflicting goals,” he said. “It’s kind of a juggling job.”

Along with securing the building to compensate for the “weak story,” (the glass on the second floor), plans for Ondine could include overhaul of the pipe system, installing a food service area and painting. Piekenbrock also hopes that out of the money the Oregon University System has dedicated to the remodeling project – he puts the amount at $4 million – there just might be enough left over after meeting more utilitarian goals to do something about what he calls the Ondine’s 1960s “brutalist” aesthetic.

“It would be nice if we could create a more welcoming environment,” he said. “We’ll see how much money there is. We’ve got a list of wishes of what we’d like to do in the building. “

“Montgomery Court is a little bit of a different animal,” Piekenbrock said. “The whole goal is to have reinforcements hidden.”

Upgrades to Montgomery Court will largely involve securing the parapets, which could break away from the building and fall on pedestrians. Piekenbrock estimates that the work can be done in the summer, which would be ideal since good weather is required for the work on the roof and the minimum number of students would be displaced from the top floor rooms.

The grant’s stipulated time frame helps prioritize seismic upgrades over the remodeling, but also complicates the construction situation.

“After 20 months, the funds dry up,” said Irish.

While remodel money has no deadline, said Piekenbrock, relocating students from the two residence halls makes getting the project over quickly a big consideration. Still, the construction will occur in stages, with Irish suggesting that major remodels to Ondine may be scheduled for summer 2005.

“We’re not sure if (Ondine) will be emptied, or if a few floors will be emptied, or what,” Piekenbrock said. “We’re waiting to hear the consultants’ options.”

The next step is to meet with OUS and determine the exact requirements of the FEMA grant. Piekenbrock and Irish all say that other grants are in progress.

“We are applying right now (to Preserve Our Historic Sites) to renovate Lincoln Hall,” said Irish. “We feel that it fits in their criteria.”

A request for funds to repair Lincoln Hall was not included in the application for the FEMA grant because, Piekenbrock said, it would cost more to fix than to rebuild.