NZ shakeup a wakeup call for Vancouver's heritage districts

Post by Daniel Fontaine in


NZ devastation: would this be the scene in the Downtown Eastside after an earthquake?

It's hard not to watch what's going on in New Zealand over the last 48 hours and not think about what will happen to Metro Vancouver when the big one hits. Experts say it's not a matter of if, but when the region is struck with a big earthquake. If recent quakes in Seattle, Chile and now New Zealand are any indication of the destruction we might face, it's a rather frightening prospect.

As I poured through the hundreds of images streaming onto the Internet from yesterday's Christchurch quake, I couldn't help but think of what will happen to Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and Gastown when our quake begins. If you're unfamiliar with those neighbourhoods, they are comprised of hundreds of older brick buildings that are far from being seismically sound.

In the case of the Downtown Eastside, many of those buildings also happen to be rundown single room occupancy hotels which house some of the poorest people in Canada. For years, the heritage advocates have lobbied city council to protect them from the wrecking ball as a means of saving some of Vancouver historical connections.

Meanwhile, poverty activists have also lobbied council to retain those old brick structures. They have successfully argued that taking them down could result in more people living on the street. There has been a groundswell of resistance from certain segments of the community for renewal (aka what they call gentrification). However, the unfortunate reality is that many of Canada's poorest citizens are also living in some of the most seismically unsafe buildings anywhere in North America.

Just look at the kinds of buildings that were hardest hit in Christchurch. For the most part they weren't the tall, glass structures built in the last 30 years in their downtown core. Rather, most of the buildings that tumbled down onto people and property were built long before there even was a seismic code for construction. That's why it's not a stretch to think that a similar sized earthquake could result in a major catastrophe in older neighbourhoods like the Downtown Eastside.

Trendy Gastown is Vancouver's oldest neighbourhood and it too faces an uncertain future. Although in the case of Gastown, many of it's older buildings have been upgraded to withstand earthquakes when the buildings were converted to new offices or condos. However, there still remains a number of older buildings in the area which will likely be heavily impacted when the ground begins to tremble.

It's hard for civic politicians of any stripe to look heritage and poverty activists in the face and say that a building should come down due to the fact it might kill hundreds of people during a severe earthquake. It's much easier to nod and allow these old relics to stand, and in many instances house people, rather than face the reality that some of them should be replaced with more modern structures.

Therein lies the conundrum facing civic politicians governing a city atop a major fault line. Stand up against a bunch of well organized community activists now, or face some difficult questions after the quake has struck. As you can imagine, it's always easier to roll the dice and hope that the quake doesn't happen on your watch.

It's clear to me after witnessing what's just happened in Christchurch that we need to look seriously at how many of these older buildings are going to come down in a major quake. We then need to ensure that as many of our most vulnerable citizens are housed in buildings that won't become a death trap. That means systematically taking many buildings down, while selectively upgrading others. Seismically upgrading all of our heritage buildings is a costly venture that no government or private sector entity would undertake. Especially when you consider we have so many schools and other public buildings that are on the wait list.

Unfortunately, after the dust has settled in New Zealand and we move on to other headlines, I think the status quo will prevail. Thousands of people in B.C.'s poorest postal code will continue to live in brick buildings that most civic politicians know simply won't withstand a major earthquake. I certainly hope that I'm wrong on this one for the sake of everyone who calls these heritage buildings home.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the citizens of New Zealand as they live through one of the worst tragedies to hit their country in the last 80 years. Let's hope that as many people as possible can be saved and that they will be able to begin the rebuilding process as soon as possible.

For more insight into the possible earthquake threat to poorer neighbourhoods, listen to Brett Mineer's story on CKNW.

What do you think? Should we be systematically tearing down these older buildings that are seismically unsafe? Is it a good use of taxpayer dollars to upgrade them all? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

- Post by Daniel


Hmmm. Crushed by heritage brick, or shredded by condo tower glass... tough decision

New B.C. highrises at risk in event of major quake

Sorry if that sounds glib but I would suggest that halfway around the world from the comfort of our "armchairs", a google image search isn't going to provide the thorough analysis to start drawing immediate conclusions.

Can we at least wait till the dead and those still living are recovered before politicizing a tragedy? I know the development industry in Vancouver is so big that many will whore for it, but let's not be ghouls.

The cost of stabilizing those old buildings so that they would be "earthquake proof" would in my opinion cost much more than they are worth as examples of times past.. Nostalgia buffs are not graduates of any economics school as far as I can tell and are happy to spend scarce taxpayers' dollars on such projects. (not that the current mayor has any regard for taxpayers' dollars). So I say go very easy on the city's involvement in this.

I like your story, it got a nice ring to it. But exactly how big of a "big one" does the BC building code plan for ? Knowing very little of the Richter scale I thought intensity measurements going from 6 to 7 is not just double, or 10 times, it's more like 25 times worse.

Now add to this the fact that Vancouver island is on it's own shelf, if we really do have a "big one" whats going to happen in the straight ? Are we going to have a tsunami wash over vancouver richmond ladner, delta and surrey ? How far up the north shore will it slosh ? 250ft ? 500ft? 1000ft?

When the "big one" comes it will be certain death for the masses and chaos for months if not years for the survivors.

If anything the lesson we should learn is how futile it is to plan against mother natures ruthlessness.

Sorry Dennis, I am with CityCaucus on this. It is an important question. I had my office in an 'upgraded' building on the eastern edge of Gastown for many years and it was always a question for us. And my kids went to Bayview and then Kits, two buildings that would be at a high risk in an earthquake. I think some form of comprehensive package to allow owners to borrow to complete sesmic and green upgrades is a critical investment for Vancouver. I would not want to see direct subsidies. If anyone is to provide direct subsidies it should be the insurance industry! The owners are responsible for their buildings. I would prefer to see upgrades where possible and not new development, but there are no doubt some buildings that can't be saved. This should not be an excuse for widespread demolition though.

@ Jones:

If a 5 hit us, significant damage would be caused in certain areas.

Look back to 1964 when Alaska was hit by a 9.2 magnitude earthquake.

The tsunami that came after had 27 foot waves.

Both killed people and destroyed property.

And yes, people in BC were effected by it as well.


Exactly my point !

What are these seismically upgraded structures meant to survive ? You can't tell me a brick building, with a few seismic upgrades is going to survive a 9, probably not even a 8.

Lets not forget Seatle, they've been assessing risk, they know if they get a magnitude 7, around 80 bridge structures are going to be damaged.

What is the Big onE we're planning on ?
I don't think it's a 9 which would be about 50 times as strong as a 7 !

Sadly, Vancouver’s record on heritage preservation and renovation is very poor in comparison to many other North American cities, where properly managed Heritage Density Banks are maintained and provide funding for these projects. The funding doesn’t come directly from the City, but from developers.

But in Vancouver, the Heritage Density program has been mismanaged into the ground, and now has a moratorium on it, effectively killing any concerted effort to upgrade the buildings in the Historic Area. This helps to enable developer shilling, fear mongering, and calls to “systematically” destroy what’s left of our old buildings, calls which seem to be increasing exponentially due to the skyrocketing land assessments in the area. A sad state of affairs, in my opinion. Daniel raises a good question, but maybe a little more research would have led to a little less radical conclusion?

As to the question of economic viability of heritage districts, there is plenty of research to contradict bobh’s assertions that it’s not economically worth it to preserve heritage districts. Cities worldwide that undertake public restoration works projects in their heritage inner cities often see dramatic results immediately, and the economic benefits only accrue over time. This isn’t just tourist dollars, but huge increases in jobs, investment, infrastructure upgrades, and tax revenues. All to the benefit of both the local community and the City at large.

A little more creativity in our approach could pay huge dividends for decades to come. In other cities that recognize the real value and long-term benefits of well-preserved heritage districts, municipal bonds are often issued to pay for large-scale restoration projects, thus ensuring it doesn’t come out of taxpayer’s pockets, or take money away from other programs.

On a related note, it now appears that the Pantages Theatre’s demolition is imminent. I find this to be a prime example of just how short-sighted our city is in dealing with not only heritage preservation, but also revitalization in the DES. I find it disgraceful that this building -- which should be a real jewel for Vancouver and would provide a huge boost in investment, jobs, and community revitalization – is treated as just another “development site” whose future is dictated by real estate speculation, rather than civic value.

Furthermore, the Pantages Theatre is consistently rated in the 10 ten most endangered historical sites in our City, and was recently listed as one of the top 10 most endangered heritage sites in all of Canada. If it goes the way of the wrecking ball in the next few weeks or months, will you really applaud this Council for allowing it to happen under their watch? I sure won't.

In 1985 an 8.1 centered off the Pacific Coast killed over 10 000 people in Mexico City, hundreds of miles away. The underlying subsoil conditions in the center of the city - where everything is built on silt - left massive damages. Falling debris was another huge cause of death.

I was an exchange student in Mexico City not long after the quake, and witnessed the devastation, where blocks upon blocks of downtown were reduced to building shells and rubble. Strangely, some buildings survived adjacent to those that were shattered ruins. Parts of the downtown core, being built on silt, sank several feet.

Building Codes have been altered significantly in the last several iterations in order to address seismic events better, and the Vancouver Building Bylaw has prescriptions for upgrades in the event building owners upgrade their older structures. These measures may save some lives, but the underlying fact is that until it happens and where we won't know exactly what will go wrong. We should be exercising proper emergency preparedness due to our proximity to faults, and ensuring that we are extra diligent where subsoil conditions are not ideal (i.e. Richmond)

Steven Forth's suggestion of incentives would certainly help spur those building owners who have not upgraded their buildings. In addition, occupants of buildings should systematically assess their surroundings, to reduce hazards from 'secondary structures' that can also cause injury and death (ie. inadequately braced flourescent light fixtures, mechanical equipment, library bookshelves), and ensure there is an emergency kit with provisions for water and first aid.

No matter how much we tweak the Building Codes or heritage policies, there will be damage, and emergency preparedness will be the best way to mitigate the impacts on life safety. Others have gone through this terrifying event and come out the other side with much better codes and policies. We should learn from their experiences.

Exactly my point !

Like you said the epicenter was hundreds of miles away, yet a magnitude 8.1 caused such massive destruction and death !

Just imagine if the epicenter is in the straight !

It won't matter how much steel is holding up your brick wall, or if your soil is compact like richmond (at sea level) with a 100 ft wall of water and debris.

I suppose our livability rating will suffer for a few weeks.

I really like the tone of this article and most of these comments. Let's be realistic, earthquakes can happen anywhere in the world and at anytime. I recently returned from a holiday in Paris and Venice and I was shocked at the abundance of old buildings in those cities - and they aren't even seismically upgraded. By my estimation most of them need to come down and be replaced by something safer and more efficient. The upkeep on all those old buildings alone must cost a fortune. No wonder France and Italy are so broke!

use taxpayer money to upgrade the buildings? How about a little more creativity than "the government to the rescue" where it's our tax dollars at stake yet one more time? How about at least considering turning to the private sector here? I like the concept of willing private companies taking some risk and possibly the taxpayer subsidizing a portion but certainly not all.
If we have an earthquake of a reasonable magnitude (6 or more), there will be damage and there is nothing that can prevent that.

I come from ChCh. I visit my family and friends in New Zealand every year.

Please check out the videos and photos of the city and suburbs to understand that most - if not all of the demolished buildings and homes that are in rubble, are built from brick.

My ChCh friends tell of brick chimneys breaking through roofs in the Sept's quake being the major cause if injuries then.

Now it is mostly brick homes, and sadly brick heritage buildings that have been totalled. In fact, pretty much every building I consider ChCh's heritage has GONE!

I, too was sentimental. No longer. It is clear that brick structure cannot sustain one or two earthquakes - and the after-shocks that follow.

Think St Paul's Hospital!

ChCh Hospital, that I trained at, was of the same design and of the same era. It too was built of brick. Much to my chagrin this whole complex was demolished several years ago and rebuilt with the latest quake proofing.

Last week though sustaining slight damage it has been a successful hub to deal with major trauma earthquake injuries due to its fully functioning entity.

Falling bricks killed a mother carrying her own baby in ChCh.

Please Vancouverites - rethink your position on St Paul's Hospital. It is crumbling and dirty. Its systems need updating and its "house" needs cleaning.

While giving a thought to those in Christchurch who are in dire straits let us think we will survive the BIG ONE when it arrives on our shores!

"If we have an earthquake of a reasonable magnitude (6 or more), there will be damage and there is nothing that can prevent that."

Great, lets all hope Earthquake will be reasonable, and perhaps we can ask Earthquake to limit her magnitude based on public consensus and building code standards.

This seems to be going over your heads folks. We know we live on a fault zone, in fact a very active one, thats ready to "pop". The scientists have been telling us this now for some time, and keep telling us "the big one" is coming.

What media (like this place) CONTINUES to not do is provide the facts based on scientific evaluation of what magnitude "the big one"
is expected to be, and the real-world consequences to our infrastructure.

Could it be the truth is that frightening ?

Could it be dumping cash to retro-fit buildings that have no chance of surviving is a waste of money ?

The government has dumped 10's of millions into the seismic upgrades of our bridges. Those upgrades are specifically engineered so the the structure fails in a controlled manour !

Another lesson of earthquake damage came from the Kobe, Japan quake of the 1995, a 6.8 magnitude shake (much less forceful than the 8.1 that struck Mexico City) which killed over 6 000 . The earthquake was much more devastating on another note though. Many structures collapsed (unreinforced masonry and wood-frame) in a pancake-collapse and subsequent fire. Enormous loss of life and property. Many people rendered homeless.

The fact is that predicting the earthquake impact is imprecise, with numerous variables that come into play when assessing how a specific design resists the impact. Point in fact is that the glass towers that grace downtown today may be built to very high structural standards and survive as a structure very well. But a good shake may cause them to shed their skin, and falling glass becomes a hazard.

As for the existing buildings, it is known how to retrofit many of the old structures to stiffen the diaphragm and extend the buildings' chance for survival. The question is whether one can make an economic case for it - and that is left with the individual building owner. Incentives to retrofit that do not cost taxpayers (less red tape, waiving certain permit fees for example) may help sway the owners to consider some form of heritage retention, which is a cultural value and should not be dismissed out-of-hand.

Simply put, we (the Geoscience community) do not know some of the answers to your questions, and are unfortunately challenged by continued budget cuts at both the federal and provincial level, which limits the science we can do. Maybe you feel the media isn’t warning you enough about the dangers, but it is up to you to look at the TV coverage of Christchurch and make the connection.

If you talk to the experts (Google John Clague from SFU, who has written extensively on this), the risk in Vancouver from the really big 9+ earthquake (a so-called Cascadia Megathrust) will be damped somewhat by the great distance from the Cascadia fault (300km west of us). It will be a very bad day to be in Tofino between shaking, land subsidence and tsunami, but the weather over there is crap anyway. These quakes have a 500-odd year recurrence interval, so the risk of it happening in our lifetime is real, but relatively small.

The bigger concern from a planning perspective is a more local quake along some previously unmapped fault very close to the City. This might be a 6 or a 7, but will be shallow and close, resulting in much more intense affects in the City. Part of the problem is we have little data on how common these events are. We have lots of evidence that says they should be common, but we haven’t had one in the 100 years that people have been building with bricks.

In the end, earthquake risk is just one of a long list of things that we build and design around. For every increase in magnitude durability we build to, the costs go up, the other design factors (windows, energy efficiency, fire safety, aesthetics, etc.) are compromised. We don’t wall want to live in the Fuherbunker.

What I think is shameful is provincial government who recognizes that our children are at high risk in many of our schools, then cry poverty when the required upgrades are endlessly delayed, while at the same time they go gangbusters building a freeway-bridge project with the money. It tells you where this government’s priorities are.

@Pat, Your a geoscientist without any answers. Great. Just what we need, more clueless scientist telling us to google other scientist, and telling me I should watch the TV to make a connection to the events in CHCH ?

It sounds like you Geoscientists are payed well to pass the buck, telling tofino your sorry but they're gonna wash away, and that I should build a nazi bunker if I wish to survive.

As for the schools, I'm sure you geoscientists are really disappointed that work won't happen, because you originally designed the schools with asbestos and other crap to start off with now you want to go back and make them 'safer' for the low low price of.... $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

@Pat check this out Geoboy

This is for western washington, they are doing SO MUCH research, that they have even included parts of BC ! And guess what, things are WORSE then they appear !

Now THEY found that ABBOTSFORD is sitting on a fault ready to rip a 6.8 in the middle of town. Thanks USA !

Listen to this scientist - "This is very complicated, but the risks are slightly higher than before,"

I'll buy that.


Perhaps you just identified a reason why scientists are reluctant to have this conversation.

Good bye.

If you live in a city that experiences a significant earthquake, be prepared for shit to happen.

Building Code engineers and other contributing editors to National and Local Building Codes are doing their best to strike a reasonable balance between caution in design and acknowledgement of safety concerns (for instance - hospitals and emergency service buildings are all built to a higher standard with respect to resistance to seismic forces than are normal commercial and residential buildings. This is a function of the belief we will need those structures in the chaos that may follow a significant seismic event.)

Best to prepare for the aftermath by preparing an emergency kit and understanding the emergency procedures to follow in your area, and hope you never need to use them.

Prior to catastrophizing about future possibilities, or attributing responsibilities to certain scientists who truly cannot predict these events with a degree of accuracy desired by some members of the public, remember that all areas have their significant hazards (hurricanes in the east, tornadoes in the mid-west, typhoons in southeast asia) and that all knowledge in how to respond to them in the built environment is acquired over time, by many people, looking into many factors. I am sure society will learn from Christchurch as well.

This will not prevent loss of life in the future - shit will still happen. It does everywhere. But learning from the event might help minimize the losses when our turn comes.

"Heritage advocates" are actually quite silent on the issue of DTES SRO hotels. Collectively, those buildings are what gives the neighbourhood its historical character, but local heritage organizations seem content to watch them deteriorate under slumlord mismanagement. At some point they'll fall down, with or without an earthquake. It's also worth noting that the provincial government bought a number of these hotels, only a handful of which were renovated to a significant extent.

Finally, "poverty activists" in the DTES have for years been calling for the government to build enough social housing to not just house the homeless, but to house the people (the "underhoused") living in the hotels as well. In other words, this article misrepresents both heritage advocates and antipoverty activists.

"local heritage organizations seem content to watch them deteriorate under slumlord mismanagement"

This statement is a rather broad and uninformed criticism. Renovating heritage structures such as the SROs you reference is a costly venture. Prior to the latest revisions to the Vancouver Building By-law, even the smallest renovation proposals were met with stringent and cost-prohibitive upgrade requirements (something known as VBBL Table 'A').

This upgrade mechanism was introduced by the COPE administration after Expo 86 to deter building owners from evicting SRO tenants and replacing them with casual visitors. The policy was an abject failure and led to owners, even those wanting to undergo partial renovations, from touching the buildings lest they go broke trying to satisfy the stringent requirements. The City has backed away (wisely) from this policy now, but many building owners still are unaware that the Table 'A' requirements no longer necessarily apply. In addition, the new requirements still require a reasonable effort be made at upgrading fire safety, seismic and accessibility requirements based on the scope of work proposed.

Local heritage advocates have no say in whether an individual building owner should be required to spend copious amounts of money to satisfy the demands that will be placed upon them under the Building Bylaws. They should not be criticized for things that are beyond their power, nor empowered with influence on how individual business owners spend their money.

'"local heritage organizations seem content to watch them deteriorate under slumlord mismanagement"

This statement is a rather broad and uninformed criticism. Renovating heritage structures such as the SROs you reference is a costly venture.'


The ins and outs of renovation costs and regulations don't make my comments uninformed or 'rather broad,' unless of course you know of any heritage organizations advocating for these old hotels to be upgraded. If so, please enlighten me.

As I said, the government owns many of these buildings so in those cases, the plight of frustrated slumlords is irrelevant.

By slumlord mismanagement, I mean spending the money for the basic upkeep that would slow or prevent their buildings from deteriorating in the first place. From talking to residents in a lot of these hotels, this just doesn't happen. Yes there may be exceptions, but the generalization holds up.

Also, what Cope administration? Under Larry Campbell? In my understanding, Gordo was in power after Expo.

Local heritage advocates generally have no say over what happens to any of the buildings they advocate for, which is why they advocate, raise public awareness, etc. instead of spending their energy investing in and fixing up these places. Maybe there's a good logical or strategic reason they ignore the hotels, or maybe it's just how they prioritize their energy and resources, but in any case, I stand by my main point that, counter to what this article says, they are silent on the issue of the deteriorating hotels in the DTES.

You are responding to a post regarding upgrade of heritage facilities - specifically re: seismic. This goes beyond the scope of the regular upkeep argument you now trot out. You also said " It's also worth noting that the provincial government bought a number of these hotels, only a handful of which were renovated to a significant extent."

My previous post addresses the probable why with respect to the lack of significant renovations.

The Cope administration of which I referred was that of Mike Harcourt - ca 1986. 'Table A' is an old beast. The fact for these building owners is that anything beyond paint requires a building permit in COV - therefore add a wall, add a sink, anything beyond a basic repair and up until the last Building By-law, there went the budget. Many of these building owners are reluctant to spend money to begin with, I concur, but the stringent requirements deterred owners from upgrading anything and put many into a perpetual state of fear re: City of Vancouver.

I have no issue with heritage advocates advocating for preservation by any means. I just wish advocates wanting to know why certain work is not being undertaken take the time to educate themselves as to the incredible barriers that have been put up in the past that prevented that progress from happening, and know that when the bill for renovating far outstrips the cost of doing nothing and later starting anew, the economics will frequently dictate the decision.

This is is an area I work in frequently and I speak from experience in the building profession.

Thoughts go out to the people of Japan as once again nature unleashes her fury.

Let us follow with sympathy and hope, and perhaps we can also learn some of the lessons about what helps us in future and what does not, for there but for the grace of god....

From the NY Times:

Check out!

Paid Advertisement

Paid Advertisement