An older brick building lays in tatters after recent Christchurch, NZ quake
This is my latest column at 24 Hours newspaper...
Do Vancouverites need to sacrifice heritage for seismic safety? In light of the recent earthquake disasters in Japan and Christchurch, New Zealand I'm increasingly convinced the answer is yes.
Just look what happened in Christchurch's heritage neighbourhoods and what's left of its beloved cathedral. The rubble in the streets there foreshadowed what would happen in our historic Chinatown and Downtown Eastside neighbourhoods. Many, if not most of those SRO hotels would crumble during a significant earth tremor.
In fact, in the last shaker nearby to us - in Seattle back in 2001 - it was the old brick structures that fared the worst.
Besides those old hotels, the most urgent area of concern is the many aging schools in Vancouver. We have heritage advocacy groups in our city who bristle at the idea of tearing down a 100-year old schoolhouse. What we have much less of are groups who can make the same passionate case for public safety.
Perhaps it's time for a more balanced debate?
A few years ago a fight erupted between heritage advocates and the Vancouver School Board on the future of Dickens Elementary. The old 1913 building was in terrible shape and needed millions of dollars in retrofits. Former board Chair Ken Denike tells me, "You could actually see through the tops of the support columns to the outside."
In the end the Board voted to demolish the old building. Says Denike, "When the bricks hit the ground they turned to dust. It's a wonder the building stood that long."
Of all of British Columbia's schools needing seismic upgrades, a large number of them are in the City of Vancouver. Before 1942, the majority of the population in the Lower Mainland lived within Vancouver's boundaries. This year six schools are celebrating their 100th birthday.
Not many of us in this city live or work in 100-year old brick buildings. So why is it okay to have our kids inhabit these old structures ten months of the year?
Today, there are still sixty schools needing seismic work done in Vancouver alone. The oldest buildings are sometimes pleasing to look at from outside, but they've not adapted well to the needs of today's education system. Many schools in Vancouver are poorly lit and energy inefficient.
Think it's easy to add fibre optic cabling, let alone upgrade the plumbing or electrical in a building built before the First World War? Of course not.
Ask me to choose safety and a modern education facility for my kid over a pretty brick façade and the answer is a no-brainer. I'll take the new building.
If anything positive can result from these recent overseas tragedies, I hope it's a true debate on the future of Vancouver's oldest buildings, and making public safety a higher priority.