Blaze at empty hotel underscores need for tougher rules, better security: building inspector

Building inspector Michael Sharpe is urging the City of Victoria to toughen up rules around safety and security of empty properties in the wake of this week’s fire at the former Plaza Hotel.

The hotel at the corner of Pandora Avenue and Government Street had been shut down and was unused at the time of the fire, which ripped through four storeys and filled downtown with acrid smoke.

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No cause has been determined.

The blaze re-ignited Sharpe’s long-time interest in seeing the city adopt stronger measures, including annual inspections and fees, for unused buildings. He points to Winnipeg, which has a detailed vacant-building bylaw, as an example of what can be done to help prevent fires.

“Look at the costs to fighting the fire, the economic loss to surrounding businesses, the environmental impact of the fire, both in regards to contaminated water and air quality, the safety concerns for first responders and so on,” he said.

Sharpe, of Meadowvale Developments and Inspection Services Ltd. and former owner of the Roxy Theatre on Quadra Street, first raised the issue with the city in 2005. He was prompted by concerns about the condition of the old Janion Hotel, now redeveloped, and the nearby Northern Junk buildings, which were deteriorating. Today, a development plan for the Northern Junk site is in the works from a different owner.

If empty buildings are not maintained, they can pose structural dangers and attract vandals, rats and pigeons.

In June 2018, fire raced through an empty Oak Bay house at 57 Beach Dr. that was already damaged from a fire five years earlier. There was no power or natural gas service to that site. Between the fires, residents complained to the municipality about trespassing and suspicious activities. Graffiti covered walls.

Victoria’s abandoned properties bylaw does not require annual inspections, but allows for inspections by government officials.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps referred questions about tightening the rules to the city fire chief, who did not immediately respond to an email message.

Owners of a property that is or will become abandoned (defined as being empty for 30 days or longer) must ensure it is protected against break-ins, occupation and vandalism.

Options include putting barriers on windows and other entry points, installing security fences and alarms, and bringing in security patrols or guards on a frequent or periodic basis.

Sharpe is calling for more precise and comprehensive security measures.

“These buildings, if they are to remain vacant, must be secured to a standardized level of protection, be annually inspected by the city for a fee, have a fire-safety plan available and on file, and be kept at an esthetically pleasing level of cleanliness to prevent rodents, insects and other pests from becoming a nuisance to neighbours as a minimum,” he said.

A fire-safety plan would provide crucial information to firefighters, he said.

Winnipeg requires a fire-safety plan for unused buildings that includes floor plans and fire-protection systems, and identifies access routes and building openings.

It also cites specific maintenance and structural standards that must be met. These include using plywood of specific thicknesses and lengths to board up properties.

Roofs must be watertight, all walls and floors must be structurally sound, and porches and stairways must be in good repair. No more than 25 per cent of any painted exterior wall can be blistered, cracked or flaking, and mortar between bricks or stones cannot be loose.

Several of downtown Victoria’s empty or partly empty older buildings have been redeveloped into condominiums to meet demand for downtown living.

Randy Holt, vice-president and partner in Devencore Realty Victoria Ltd., said for the past four or five years, market conditions for redevelopment have been good, which facilitated the upgrading or conversion of older buildings.

But that is now changing, with costs rising and mortgage stress tests affecting the pool of available buyers.

“Things aren’t quite as accommodating as they were in the past few years.”

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