When it comes to a major earthquake of a 9 or greater magnitude ripping the Pacific Northwest apart from Vancouver Island down to Cape Mendocino, it can no longer be a question of if, but when.

Charles Lane, a geologist who teaches at Southern Oregon University, says the latest odds released are 1 in 3 that the Cascadia Subduction quake will happen within the next fifty years. “It’ll be enough to damage all of downtown Ashland. It’ll be doing some serious damage, you’d see walls collapse," Lane said. “Public buildings would need to be centers for people to go after an earthquake like that.”

Lane says wood frame houses will come through it all right, but the unreinforced brick and masonry Ashland is known for, including the City Hall building, are likely to fall apart in a big quake. The city of Ashland is aware of the problem and what it will cost to fix its City Hall building. It’s estimated repairs and metal reinforcement would be in excess of $3 million.

So the City of Ashland is in a bit of an even bigger bind because it appears it would be cheaper to tear the old City Hall down rather than re-build it. Engineering reports indicate the roof, the second floor and many major pieces of the unreinforced masonry building would collapse in a large quake.

The cost estimate for a seismic upgrade alone is estimated at $236 per square foot, not including the cost of relocating staff for approximately nine months. But while that work was going on, the city would likely find it cost effective to also do needed work to upgrade electrical, plumbing and other work that would more than double the per-square-foot cost to $576.

Another option would be to gut the inside, demolishing everything but the north and west walls, and rebuild from the ground up at an estimated cost of $405 per square foot. Starting from scratch on city owned property elsewhere would cost about $450 per square feet, estimators say.

City Administrator Dave Kanner suggested that, if the building was rebuilt from the ground up, the council should consider rebuilding with four floors instead of two to address current space issues.

The buildings across from City Hall are also likely to crumble in a major quake. The old structures which house Mix, The Brickroom, and Black Sheep are all candidates for collapse (some neighboring structures have had some measure of retrofitting to strengthen them), but Lane points out that’s not all. Homes on the hillsides could be in big trouble if an earthquake hits at a time of year when the soil is saturated. The earthquake could cause further liquefaction. The scenario gets dire.

“Public buildings and infrastructure need to be looked at seriously," Lane said. "If other buildings come down, where will people go?”

Some business owners have decided to get ahead of the demand. Standing Stone and Paddington Station have already reinforced their buildings, just in case.

Pam Hammond, co-owner of Paddington Station, voluntarily did a seismic retrofit of her 1903 building when it underwent a major remodel that wrapped up in 2004. The masonry building is now reinforced with metal girders.

Hammond told The Tidings, "We did it for the safety of the building ... We wanted to protect our employees and customers should an earthquake happen. We care about the historic importance of the building."

Hammond did not want to weigh in specifically on City Hall, noting that she hasn’t really looked into it and isn’t clear on its historic value, but she said of the choice to renovate historic buildings as opposed to demolition, “You need to restore your buildings if you can, otherwise your become a town of cinder block.”

Now it’s the city’s turn to decide how to proceed.

The City Council recently authorized an additional $88,000 to be spent on studying options and comparing demolition to retrofitting City Hall. 

When that study is wrapped up a hard decision is likely to be made. There is no official date of when the report will come in as of yet. Whichever course is selected, it likely will end up going to voters to approve a bond measure to fund the project.

Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at akinsj@sou.edu and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.