More than once, the city has failed to act on its own recommendations for addressing the seismic dangers of older private buildings
On Dec. 3, 2013, Vancouver city staff updated city council on a plan to prepare for a major earthquake.
Under the update, the city was to establish a technical committee to advise it how to reduce the risk of private buildings collapsing or being badly damaged in an earthquake.
Three years later, that committee has not been created, and the city is no closer to addressing the seismic dangers of the city’s many older private buildings.
It is not the first time the city has failed to act on its own recommendations.
An examination by Postmedia News found the city identified the need to develop a proactive plan to reduce the seismic hazard of older, privately-owned building stock more than two decades ago, through an engineering report. But successive councils have failed to do so.
The 1994 report contains a list of 1,100 buildings and their risk rankings. It was never made public, but a copy has been obtained by Postmedia News.
Hundreds of buildings on the list — including aging multi-storey brick-apartments that provide rooms to the city’s poorest on the east side — appear to have had no seismic upgrades since 1994, a Postmedia News investigation found.
In 2011, when the city for the third time in two decades, launched an effort to produce a proactive strategy to seismically improve private buildings, Mayor Gregor Robertson called Vancouver “the most vulnerable city in Canada.”
This week, city staff said Robertson was unavailable for an interview.
In a written statement, he said in the coming years the city will work with industry and stakeholders to explore tools and incentives to seismically upgrade all buildings in the city. “Private buildings vulnerable to earthquakes are a major concern to the city,” he said.
In 2013, city staff said a strategy for seismic improvement of private buildings was important because a major earthquake would cause death and injury; displace people and cause an exodus of residents; result in the loss of income, taxes and livelihood; and could shut the downtown for a year or more.
A map in the 2013 earthquake preparedness update showed a concentration of purple dots — large buildings constructed before modern seismic standards were introduced in 1973 — in the downtown, the West End, the east side, along Kingsway and Broadway, and in the industrial and commercial areas of south Vancouver along the Fraser River.
The report said that 60 per cent of Vancouver’s buildings were constructed before building codes were introduced that set seismic safety standards.
Earlier reports said the city needed to go beyond its existing passive mechanisms, which trigger requirements for seismic upgrades when building owners apply for permits at city hall to change the use of their building or do a major renovation. Robertson, the mayor, argued this week the city’s bylaw triggers that require seismic upgrades for renovations are a leader in the country.
Other than the passive triggers, there are no bylaws in Vancouver, or any other B.C. community, that require building owners to seismically upgrade older buildings.
Hundreds remain unrenovated
Over time, some of the 1,100 buildings the city’s consultants Delcan-Norecol assessed in the early 1990s have been seismically upgraded, some triggered by changes of use or renovations.
But hundreds of buildings on the list compiled by the city in 1994 — including aging multi-storey brick-apartments that provide rooms to the city’s poorest on the east side — appear to have had no seismic upgrades, the Postmedia News examination also found.
The city has taken other steps to prepare for an earthquake. It has spent as much as $100 million on upgrading water lines and bridges, and building auxiliary water systems that can draw water directly from the ocean to fight fires. It has also started to upgrade city-owned buildings. A city heritage building incentive program that was ended in 2007 also helped to revitalize buildings in Gastown that included seismic upgrades.
‘Something has to give, and it better not be the earthquake first.’Graham Taylor, structural engineer
But the identification and lack of action on a comprehensive and explicit approach to addressing the seismic hazard of private buildings — including producing an up-to-date inventory — is a continuing gap in the city’s earthquake preparedness strategy.
As the 2000 city report stated, “earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do.”
Leaving the hardest for last
Graham Taylor, a consulting structural engineer who has been doing seismic assessments since the 1980s, said professionals are only too aware of how unprepared B.C. communities are for a major earthquake when it comes to their buildings.
“Something has to give, and it better not be the earthquake first,” said Taylor.
New Democrat MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert called on the City of Vancouver in 2014 to do a seismic assessment of apartment buildings but received only vague assurances, he said. “We need to make sure our private buildings are safe. It will take a lot of time, but if we don’t start now, they will never be safe,” he said. “People deserve to know if their building is going to collapse on them.”
Senior City of Vancouver staff have an explanation for the lack of action on a proactive plan to retrofit private buildings: Other items such as earthquake response preparations, including training of city staff, and identifying city buildings in need of seismic upgrades, came first.
What is clear from this approach is the city has left the most difficult for last.
“We have done a lot of the easier work up until now,” acknowledged Pat Ryan, the city’s chief building official. “Unfortunately, it now gets much more complicated.”
In an interview with Ryan and Daniel Stevens, the city’s director of emergency management, the city officials said producing a plan to reduce the seismic risk of privately-owned building remains on the city’s agenda.
But no deadlines have been set and it is not clear what the next steps will be.
Ryan and Daniels said the long-promised technical advisory committee would still be established.
City officials stressed the 1994 assessment of private buildings is out-of-date and “does not currently directly inform” its policy decisions on earthquake preparedness, mitigation and response.
However, the city does not have an up-to-date list of old buildings that are seismically at risk. (The map produced for the 2013 report was just for illustrative purposes, they said).
Some kind of new assessment may be required, but a decision has not been made on that either, said city officials.
Stevens, the city’s emergency management director, said there is a wide array of policy considerations on the table, including mandatory seismic retrofits like those implemented in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“We are not ruling anything out at this point,” said Stevens. “There is a building stock in the city that is at risk. The extent of it, and the details of which buildings and where, absolutely needs further work.”
The low-income connection
The West Hotel, at 488 Carrall St., was built in about 1912 by prominent Vancouver businessman Yip Sang to house new immigrants from China.
More than 100 years later, the eight-storey, red brick building continues to provide low-cost housing: a room with a bathroom goes for $550 a month, a room where a tenant has to use a communal bathroom rents for $490.
It houses about 80 people.
The building is one of the more than 1,100 buildings the city’s two engineering consultants, Delcan and Norecol, assessed 22 years ago.
That seismic assessment was based on a walkaround survey and structural data including construction material, height and building irregularities, as well as soil conditions and itemization of chimneys or parapets that can topple in an earthquake. A small portion of the buildings in the rapid-visual screening — a survey in accordance with National Research Council of Canada standards for seismic screenings of buildings — included reviews of building drawings.
In their report, the engineering consultants noted the rankings should not be used as a structural integrity assessment without review by a qualified structural engineer, and the information was used for comparative purposes.
The owners of buildings on the list were unaware of the 1994 seismic risk analysis, Postmedia interviews have found.
The West Hotel was one of 275 buildings given the poorest seismic ranking and a very high need for further evaluation.
Another 122 buildings were ranked as below average for seismic strength and in high need of further evaluation; 599 buildings were given an average ranking for seismic strength and in medium need for further evaluation.
The buildings were selected for study because they were built before 1973 and were generally three storeys or higher, according to a pair of reports produced by Delcan and Norecol.
Two decades later, the West Hotel does not have any visual signs up a structural upgrade, a visit to the building by Postmedia showed.
It is one of 100 buildings Postmedia visited in the past year to examine the top-ranked buildings on the 1994 list.
Those visits showed that there had been major rebuilds or additions completed or underway at seven of the 100 buildings. There are another two dozen or more buildings with visual signs of some kind of structural upgrades, many of them in Yaletown, Gastown and in some downtown areas. Those improvements include metal cross beams, metal posts and beams, concrete reinforcement walls, metal tension rods and metal cleats bolting floors to brick walls.
But as many as half the top 100 at-risk buildings showed no visual signs of seismic upgrades, including in Chinatown and the West End.
According to B.C. Assessment data provided by Landcor Data Corp., about 590 of 731 buildings with a very high to medium seismic risk ranking on the Delcan-Norecol list have an “effective” construction year of 1972 or earlier, before modern seismic building codes were introduced. (The effective construction year was not available for all 996 very-high to medium-risk buildings.)
The “effective” year is a measure produced by B.C. Assessment that takes into consideration upgrades and includes a review of building permits, according to the provincial agency.
The “effective” year — as a measure of seismic building age — has been used in earthquake damage and risk modelling in B.C. and in California, and by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency for flood hazard mapping.
But the “effective” construction year date is not an absolute indication of the seismic quality of the building — that would take a detailed engineering assessment. However, it gives an idea of whether the building has had any significant upgrades since it was built.
The building was ranked well below average for seismic quality and very high for further evaluation. It was built in 1925 and has an effective construction year of 1969, according to B.C. Assessment data.
It is owned and operated by Cadillac Fairview, a subsidiary of the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan.
In a written response, Cadillac Fairview said it has invested millions in structural upgrades to the Station, including facade restoration, and beam and column upgrades.
“We operate all of our buildings to code requirements, as outlined by the City of Vancouver, and we continue to invest in our buildings and regularly monitor and inspect the performance and operations of our buildings to ensure the safety of occupants, tenants and the community,” Cadillac Fairview spokeswoman Janine Ramparas said in an email.
Cadillac did not directly answer questions about whether the building had been evaluated for seismic performance.
In an interview with Postmedia News, senior City of Vancouver officials cautioned against reading too much into the 1994 Delcan-Norecol evaluation, saying it was preliminary work and that only a full engineering assessment could determine seismic risk.
Ryan, Vancouver’s chief building officer, pointed to lessons the city had learned in having its own buildings assessed. They believed the city hall east wing building — 370 city workers were moved out of it in 2013 over concerns of seismic risk — would be a relatively easy fix, but it turned out to be much more difficult, said Ryan.
“There has been a greater understanding that the building has to be looked at as a whole,” said Ryan.
The east wing is now slated for demolition, and another city hall building, the west annex, is slated for a $4.5-million seismic upgrade.
Also on the Delcan-Norecol list at high seismic risk were Holy Rosary Cathedral in downtown Vancouver and St. Augustine’s Church and rectory on the west side.
Recent assessments carried out by engineering firm Ausenco for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver — part of an assessment of its 300 churches, rectories, convents, schools and offices — confirmed the two buildings as a high priority for seismic retrofit.
The cathedral was built in 1901 and St. Augustine’s in 1931.
Archdiocese spokesman Paul Schratz said all local parishes are expected to raise funds to finance the seismic upgrades and develop a plan to do so.
Schratz said the archdiocese’s first priority is to seismically upgrade its schools.
“We are probably looking at decades for all of this work,” he said.
There were also numerous buildings in the West End on the Delcan-Norecol list, including brick apartments owned by S.A.H. Properties Ltd. on Jervis and Thurlow.
Mike Pomeroy, who helps manage the buildings for his family, said there is already a significant cost to the general maintenance of the buildings and he could not imagine being able to afford seismic upgrades.
“I think when it comes to mandating (seismic retrofits), you are basically saying you have to tear your building down and start again,” said Pomeroy. “I think it would be more cost-effective to tear it down and rebuild. But I don’t know.”
If older-style brick buildings were torn down, that would be a sad loss for the city, said Pomeroy.
A question of cost
Jon Stovell, president of Reliance Properties, has direct experience with seismic upgrades.
In 2013, four concrete-and-glass storeys were added to his firm’s building at 564 Beatty, originally a six-storey brick and stone building that was on the Delcan-Norecol list, where it ranked as well below average for seismic quality.
As part of that expansion, the building got a full seismic upgrade that included a new vertical concrete core anchored to the ground. Original wood columns remained, buttressed by new concrete columns.
However, the upgrade was only made feasible by property tax incentives to preserve its heritage status, as was the case with other buildings that Stovell’s firm redeveloped in Gastown under the heritage incentive program that was shut down in 2007.
Stovell says a carrot approach is much better than using a stick, such as by mandating retrofits.
He said most upgrades to older buildings happen when they are largely empty or under-utilized.
“It is easy to say that stuff (about mandating retrofits). But how does that really get paid for?” queried Stovell. “Is that simply going to mean those buildings get emptied out because there is no economic case?”
Experts agree that seismically upgrading private buildings is a thorny issue. They can be costly, as retrofits can cost hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars for full upgrades of commercial buildings. They are also disruptive, as tenants may have to move out.
Mandating assessments and retrofits of older buildings could also result in buildings being demolished and the loss of low-income housing.
Out of sight, out of mind
Gordon Price was a Vancouver city councillor when the Delcan-Norecol study was produced and in 2000, when the issue of seismically upgrading the older building stock was again resurrected.
Key challenges were the cost to building owners and the potential loss of affordable housing, he remembers.
“You just do the political assessment: Is there any urgent reason you would impose something that would be political suicide? And the answer of course, is not until you get the next earthquake,” said Price.
The last earthquake to cause loss of life and damage in B.C. was the Vancouver Island earthquake of 1946.
While scientists estimate there is a 30-per-cent probability of a damaging earthquake occurring in a populated area in B.C. in the next 50 years, they cannot predict where and exactly when it will take place.
Nevertheless, experts agree it is necessary to address the old building stock, particularly unreinforced masonry buildings, often easily identifiable by a red-brick exterior. In unreinforced masonry buildings, the walls can topple or shower bricks to the ground below. That’s because the walls are not stabilized by steel bars, and the floors and roof are not connected with any strength to the walls, which means when the buildings shakes or bows, the structure can come apart.
Another class of buildings that needs work consists of older, brittle-concrete buildings built before the 1980s that, instead of flexing, can crack or break, during a major earthquake.
Computer modelling — which includes consideration of building types and age, and soil conditions —paints an ugly picture of damage from a major earthquake in Metro Vancouver.