Shaken Up 

South Main Arts District prepares for earthquakes.

Many of Memphis' historic structures may be at risk of collapsing if a New Madrid earthquake occurs.

But a group of businesses along South Main are teaming with structural engineers and seismologists on a seismic retrofit and historic conservation demonstration project to help protect some of the city's more vulnerable buildings.

The group, with approximately six months of research under its belt, is now working on a fund-raising campaign to make one South Main building able to withstand an earthquake.

The retrofitted structure will then be opened to the public, offering educational programs and resources to help neighboring property owners make the first step towards reinforcing their own structures.

The group has not yet decided on which South Main building will be retrofitted for the example project, but they have been conducting a case study on the Grawemeyer's restaurant building at 520 South Main.

"When I came here [after working as a structural engineer in San Francisco], it really shocked me that all of these old brick buildings aren't fit to survive an earthquake, particularly those on South Main, where there are so many vibrant businesses, galleries, and culture. Yet they're crumbling," said Dmetri Ozeryansky of Ozeryansky Engineering.

There are currently no physical connections between many of the brick walls to the wooden joists. So when an earthquake occurs, the brick wall is likely to fall into the street.

Anchors, which fasten the exterior of the building to the wooden joists inside by using large bolts, will help stabilize the structure in case of an earthquake. Repointing mortar and replacing wooden decking can also help buildings withstand a quake.

"Even though people talk about the big [earthquake], we're not expecting the big one for at least the next two or three hundred years," Ozeryansky said. "But we are expecting something more moderate, something like they had in Virginia or Oklahoma City over the last year."

A medium-sized earthquake is only expected to damage or destroy some of the older, more fragile buildings that were originally built using inexpensive materials like brick, while those built to code with steel and reinforced concrete should be in the clear.

"One of the really big distinctions we want to make is that we're not saying, 'Bring these structures up to code,'" Ozeryansky said. "A lot of people are saying that they can't afford to bring their buildings up to code, which is true. It's very expensive to bring one of these buildings up to modern code. That would require you to build a whole new structure within [the building], and that costs a lot of money."

Instead, the group is proposing to bring these buildings up to or close to the International Existing Buildings code, which would still fortify properties against potential earthquakes while remaining affordable.

In a meeting on Tuesday, the group, including members from Memphis Heritage and seismologists from the University of Memphis, met with South Main property owners to discuss the cultural importance of Memphis' old brick buildings and the need for structural reinforcement.

"We want to provide some kind of education for the buildings' owners," Ozeryansky said. "We want to show them what needs to be done and how much it costs. But we also want to advocate. We want to work with the city, bring the mayor in, and work with all of the different commissions."

The group also hopes to provide some of the resources needed — tax breaks or monetary incentives — to help property owners begin the retrofitting process. Costs are expected to fall between $5 and $20 per square foot, depending on the size and condition of the building.

"All of the old neighborhoods have a lot of culture. These are very valuable properties, and they're worth investing in," Ozeryansky said. "Plus or minus 20 years, these buildings are around a hundred years old. And now that people are moving back in and reinvesting, we want them to last."

The demonstration project is tentatively scheduled to open sometime next year.

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