Vancouver to oversee seismic retrofits for private buildings

VANCOUVER — A “dedicated” seismic project manager will be hired in the new year to oversee an earthquake retrofit initiative for private buildings, says the City of Vancouver.

In a statement, city spokesman Jag Sandhu said the project will “undoubtedly” involve multiple phases of work, suggestions from stakeholders across various disciplines and engagement efforts across the city.

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“The specifics of this initiative will be scoped by the new manager, in consultation with many others, and will be presented to council in 2017,” Sandhu stated in an email.

It is the first concrete sign the city is moving ahead with the latest iteration of a neglected plan to reduce the risk of private buildings collapsing or being badly damaged in an earthquake here.

An examination by the Vancouver Sun, reported last month, revealed the City of Vancouver has failed to create a proactive plan to reduce the seismic hazard of the city’s older private buildings despite identifying a need to do so more than two decades ago.

In 1994, 2000 and again in 2011, city council had approved plans to create a strategy for seismic improvements to private buildings.

In the 2011 initiative, the city was to establish a technical committee to advise it how to reduce the risk of private buildings from collapsing or being badly damaged in an earthquake. City officials say the long-promised committee will still be established.

In the 1994 initiative, the city had considered mandatory seismic assessments, deadlines for mandatory upgrades, public disclosure of the seismic risk of buildings and possibly even requiring the posting of signs on buildings that were not upgraded. These strategies — none of which have been adopted here — have been used in California since at least the 1980s.

Scientists and advocates have stressed that seismic upgrading is needed because of the 30 per cent probability of a major earthquake hitting a populated area in southwestern B.C. within the next 50 years.

Over time, some buildings in Vancouver have received seismic upgrades when changes of use or major renovations have triggered bylaw requirements to do so. But of more than 1,100 buildings included in a seismic risk assessment by the City of Vancouver in 1994, hundreds appear to have had no seismic upgrades, the Sun examination also discovered.

Those buildings include aging multi-storey brick apartments that provide rooms to the city’s poorest on the Downtown Eastside, but also brick apartments in the West End, Chinatown and Gastown, and offices in other parts of the downtown.

Spurred on by the Sun examination, Vancouver resident Franke James pressed a senior city official recently at a public event on how seismic upgrades would be encouraged or mandated. In an interview, James — who was recently appointed to the city’s Gastown historic area planning committee — said she would like to see the city be more aggressive.

At the November event — called city conversations and hosted by Simon Fraser University at its downtown campus — the City of Vancouver’s new general manager of planning, urban design and sustainability, Gil Kelley, responded that it is a huge issue for the resiliency of the community, but the difficulty of seismic retrofits is the cost.

For multi-storey, commercial buildings, seismic upgrades can cost millions of dollars, according to engineering consultants and developers.

Finding the financial means could include some type of long-term, low-interest sleeper loan, Kelley told the SFU audience. “We have to be creative,” he said.

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