Safety a priority over heritage

Post by Mike Klassen in


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.

- post by Mike. On Twitter follow @MikeKlassen or @24HoursVan.


It's a valid argument, but I'd be very afraid that it could be easily abused. It would be so easy for 'seismic' to become the new 'green', by which I mean the fig leaf of respectability by which other agendas are pursued.

An open season on our old buildings would not in itself advance the desperately slow school upgrade program. It wouldn't solve the problem of St Pauls and other hospitals, which cannot be demolished and replaced on site without significant loss of capacity.

Most of the buildings likely, you could probably say certain, to come down in a major shake are easily identifiable. Some are heritage structures, some probably should be demolished before disaster strikes but let's not wipe the slate of our history clean. You mentioned the cathedral of ChristChurch. The Spire has collapsed but the body of the church, though damaged, is still standing. It has actually survived a number of ' quakes and from what I hear the intention is to raise it again

I love old buildings. I also want our kids to be safe. Spending twice the cost of a new building to secure an old one does not make sense in an era when cash is tight and the School Board is screaming for cash.

Pick the architectural/historical stars, fix them, re-purpose them and then use the rest of the seismic upgrade money to build efficient and safe schools for our kids.

I don't think we can afford any other option from a financial or safety perspective.

Our kids can be safe in heritage buildings - if your BC Liberals hadn't dragged their feet and stalled funding for seismically upgrading them. But hey, we did get that swell Olympic party - what's a few thousand dead kids in comparison.

"Faired the worse" – Two mistakes in three words. Nice going, Mike.

We've got ourselves quite a dilemma here. I'd imagine the most viable solution would be to triage buildings according to their inherent risk to human life, with those at the top end of the scale prioritized for upgrading or redevelopment depending on economics of the situation and their relative heritage value. New redevelopment of architechturally and/or artistically significant buildings should incorporate those same values, and be built to last hundreds of years themselves so their value would extend well beyond their financial amortization periods, in order that they would become themselves heritage buildings. The main library comes to mind as one outstanding example of a building that will make Vancouverites proud for generations to come.

OK let's agree to replace all of Vancouver's aging schools. Now where is the money going to come from? City tax pagers? The Province? The Province has an empty purse with more reasonable demands for funds than it can serve. Healthcare alone eats a huge hole in the budget and that hole gets bigger each year. No politician has the courage to bring in higher medical insurance fees or a user pay plan. So health care funding will continue to eat up funds that might go to schools. So we are back to Vancouver's tax payers. Time to dig deeper.


All we ever hear is the Province has no money, the City has no money, developers can't afford to pay for this, blah blah blah.

Last time I looked we have a brand new multi-billion dollar highway system being dropped on us, multi-million dollar renovation of City Hall, new buildings popping up everywhere, etc.

The money is there, the priorities aren't. But we keep electing the same damn fools with the same damn ideas and we expect something different. Insanity!

Sorry, but I had to vent out...
I was late this morning in to work...because of the freaking Dunsmuir viaduct bike lane.
It took me (and the other two people in my car)23 minutes to cross the viaduct from Main. St to the right turn (the ones on the left lane not so lucky though)on Beatty when we got the hell out of a bottleneck ahead of us due to a multiple car accident in front or next to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre/ BC Hydro Building. During all the time when we were bumper to bumper and idling at 5 km/h there were no more than... FOUR effing bicycles crossing. One more than the number of people in my car. This is my message for the Mayor, his Vision council and to the city bureaucrats behind this superb move: I wish you an effing weekend you bunch of idiotic twits!
There, now I feel much better. Time for a coffee.
With Love, WEG

They can't put money into anything that already has someone elses name on it.
The politicians will always be able to find the funding for a monument to them or their legacy. Hospital and School inprovments are not sexy enough and won't show how great A: Mayor, Premier, Prime Minister they were

Whether your retro fit the old schools or build new ones and for the sake of this comment - the money is available - where do you put the kids while the schools are being retro fitted - many have abestos so you can`t have people around - do you bring in portables - do you move the kids for one or two years to a nearby school and listen to the Parents bitch and complain about how far little Johhny or Jane has to walk and has to pass a busy intersection or the added expense of public transit vs the building of new schools on the existing playgrounds while listening to the parents bitch and complain that there little Johnny or Jane doesn`t have a place to safely play - might inhale the dust from the excavutions and get sick or a teacher might lose their parking spot and have to walk a short distance to the their classroom
It is fine in theory to support the fixing of the schools which I support but it is a lot harder in practice to implement than in theory.

@Patricia N.

How ridiculous. By your own admission, the problem was the collision and yet you try and blame it on the bike lane. 99.9% of congestion and traffic delays are caused by too many people driving and by collisions.

The more people on bikes, the fewer people in cars to block your way and the fewer people to get in collisions that block your way.

If you are right that the province will not fund seismic upgrading of schools one has to question the BC Liberals 'Family Agenda'. But in any case, the municipalities are going to need broader taxation power so that we can bring taxing and spending decisions closer to people.

I suspect that there are a lot of seismic upgrades that can be done at a reasonable cost while maintaining heritage structures. This is an important area of innovation. But Mike is right that many of these old brick buildings should not have been built in Vancouver. We are better off with wood structures. Note that in Japan very few traditional buildings were hurt by the earthquake (including Tokyo Station, which is brick). It was the tsunami that caused the carnage and death.

Did it occur to you that if you had been on a bike you would have been able to go around the accident? My message to you - walk, use transit or use a bike. It is a choice you can make. I am tired of dangerous drivers polluting the air I breathe, wasting energy and threatening me. I am not a supporter of any specific political party, but I will happily contribute to defeating any politician who tries to keep Vancouver dependent on cars.

just a thought, this is so unfair to those in society, UNABLE to cycle, and that are dependent on a ride (Handy Dart)for example...or seniors(think about your great granny)

can you offer a suggestion that is perhaps a bit more fair to everyone...less judgmental?

From your post it sounds as if people that have no choices are killing your lungs,threatening your life...a little over the top perhaps, and I'm sure that wasn't your intent..

To Steven Forth and Richard...
You can add your names to that list of twits, buddies!
My office is in the AMEC building across from where that accident happen. Emergency vehicles were sitting right across all three lanes during that time. I start before 9 AM and I am lucky the skytrain station is almost next to the entrance to my place of work. BTW, not everyone can afford to come to work by bike for different reasons (not knowing how to bike would be the silliest, too old to bike, you have to drop the kids FIRST at school/ daycare..., living too far, having no shower facilities at work...) what a bunch of pathetic patronizing bully loosers you both are! From my windows I could see down to Main street cars locked on both lanes and not a f@*&$%g single bike on the Gregor's wet dream lane! That would have been the perfect emergency/ exit lane. Oh, but wait, it was until the gang of Vision ran into the City Hall on false premises and foreign $$$$$.
Now you ice-holes go and check out the South bound lanes on Burrard Bridge in about 30-45 minutes. And enjoy the pain inflicted by your brethren to the people of Vancouver, starting with the ones that live on Pacific Blvd where the CO2 emissions coming from idling cars are the strongest. If I'd never hear from you, or from Vision and friends it would be too soon.

"Emergency vehicles were sitting right across all three lanes during that time."

And this is somehow City Council's fault?

LOL, you anti-bike lane folks are hysterical.

As for heritage, well, it's pretty clear the Liberals prefer $800 million convention centre and $600 million sports stadium roof to ensuring our children are safe. Highest child poverty rate in the country 7 straight years shows where their priorities are - apparently developers need welfare more than BC kids living in poverty and attending unsafe schools?!

But hey, if you let the problem fester long enough, eventually you can propose tearing down all the heritage buildings in the name of "safety". And who will benefit, Mr. Klassen? Oh, right, your Liberal-friendly developer buddies who get a whole bunch of new building sites to cash in on!


Bike lanes, bike lanes, bike lanes...(sigh). The real problem here is the unsafe westbound blind turn out of the Citadel complex. The role of the bike lanes most likely (I wasn't there) was to exacerbate the situation, nothing more, nothing less. As the price of gas and cars heads for the stratosphere, rational economic actors will find alternative modes of moving around. Transit is the preferred alternative-studies show that people tend not to cycle for trips longer than about five kilometers. Many auotmobile commuters have no alternative at this time, but eventually they will adapt and adopt new forms.
The immedite remedy here is to improve the sightlines out of Citadel, by removing the concrete wall to the east and replacing it with steel piping. In the meantime it is incumbent upon all levels of government to work with the groups involved to form a rational regional transportaion plan that recognizes the short and long term interests of them all. Let's not demonize cyclists who are fortunate enough to live near where they work nor motorists who cannot find employment or transit in their neighbourhoods. We need a coordinated plan to keep all forms of transportation flowing freely and safely as we adapt to rapidly changing economic and social realities.

PS The Citadel access eastbound is also dangerous, as the Beatty and Citadel traffic lights are so close together that it is easy to misread one for the other. I witnessed an accident where that was the exact cause-a motorist mistook the Citadel green light for the Beatty light and broadsided a car proceeding through the northbound Beatty green light.


Think of all the space those who can't drive would have if those that choose to drive made a different choice?

"Now you ice-holes go and check out the South bound lanes on Burrard Bridge in about 30-45 minutes."

At 1738 on a Friday, no significant congestion IMO.

The eco freak bike maniacs are really,really boring.
I don't drive, i don't have a drivers license.
I take the bus, and walk a lot.
ONLY because I managed to find a way to work out of my home.
My neighbour has a handicapped child, works full time and MUST drive to make her life bearable. She needs to work to give her family a life. RADICAL concept.
You try biking and pulling a wheel chair behind you.
Try working a job that means you have to go around the City repairing things for people that are ECO but expect things to work!
Eco nuts forget about the service industry big time.
I ride to work. So what if the person who has to fix something in your trendy apartment has to drive there to fix it!

Same question I asked George.

What do you think the roads would be like for the people you mentioned, the people who need to/have to drive if those that choose to drive chose a different method?

some folks don't give a rat's putootie about more room, they require a vehicle, that's how they enjoy the quality of like they do...I hope for your sake you never have a debilitating illness that requires chemo treatments for you to peddle to, or God forbid fall off your bike and become a quadriplegic...your selfishness is astounding...

@ Stephen, as a side note I hope your wife and her family are OK, the last you posted she was in a difficult situation in Japan... hope all is well :-)

sorry typo folks should read quality of LIFE not like..

CHRIS (one of many)
Exactly right. All these hypocrites live in the vicinity of the Downtown core, most probably, and it makes sense for them to bike, if they can manage, or they don't have to worry about kids or health problems...but that's not part of their 'they know it all agenda'. Pathetic.
They know what they are. Patricia and Higgins eloquently stated it in earlier comments.
I'll add mine: a bunch 'vicious punks' with 'Hollyhock bathwater imbibed brains' wearing only green big banana leaves - organic! In their kosher world honey flows down the sidewalks, people throw money at them and pigs run free, or fly, something like that.

Meanwhile, back at the earthquake preparedness seminar...


I'm quite sure you didn't get my point.

If more people who choose to drive choose an alternative, do you think there would be more room on the roads for those who need to drive? Do you think you would be able to travel faster if there were more room?

See cars are inefficient. If more people use more efficient means of transportation, then there just might be more room, less congestion, faster travel times, etc for those that NEED to take a car. No one is advocating for the elimination or roads or cars. It's being more efficient.

It's really a win win. I struggle to understand the hatred for bikes--if more people ride them there's more room for you and your SUV!

btw a bicycle, e-bike or small motorcycle should be in everyone's earthquake kit!


If you take the time to read my original post , my response to Stephen, it was about his remark to abolish all cars....I felt it was over the top.

In your typical knee jerk reaction to spin, you did not read or understand my comment, which started a whole chain of aggression and crap!!!

You boohoo are the one that just does not get next time you try to condescend to me please get it right!

Perhaps then we can communicate like grown ups.


I almost forgot you said..

It's really a win win. I struggle to understand the hatred for bikes--if more people ride them there's more room for you and your SUV!

I'm one of those types that require assistance, no I don't have an SUV, but then again, I don't have full use of my legs either... you are really a piece of work boo.


Where did he say he wants to abolish cars? I guess I must have missed that.

"my response to Stephen, it was about his remark to abolish all cars....I felt it was over the top."

I don't see where that comment was made. In fact, all the comments in this thread raking people over the coals for their support of cycling options assume there's a desire to force everyone to ride a bike. But that p.o.v. wasn't put forth by anyone, and is a perfect example of misrepresenting someone's remarks so you can rebut an extremist opinion that doesn't exist. If transportation is truly about choices, then the choices that benefit the most people are deserving of support. Mass transit and active transportation are two such examples.

Sorry everyone for hijacking the thread this is the last comment...

Boo my apologies you are correct the word abolish was not used...

this dramatic statement was what I responded to...

I am tired of dangerous drivers polluting the air I breathe, wasting energy and threatening me. I am not a supporter of any specific political party, but I will happily contribute to defeating any politician who tries to keep Vancouver dependent on cars.

Sounds like someone wants cars abolished, you say potato I say potatoe..funny Stephen hasn't complained..

"Sounds like someone wants cars abolished"

No it doesn't. You say potato, I say bollocks.



"See cars are inefficient. If more people use more efficient means of transportation, then there just might be more room, less congestion, faster travel times, etc for those that NEED to take a car"

People are actually pretty good at figuring out what is efficient for themselves which is a blend of cost, time required and nature of the need to travel (take granny to the doctor, pick up kids etc). If bicycles or transit were more efficient, the public would use them. The problem is the eco nuts don't like the choices that people are making so they look to ways to make the car more inconvenient or more costly.

I have no problem in supporting initiatives that support mass transit but I do object to spending money to segregate bicycle lanes when bicycles are form of recreation and not a serious solution to transportation issues.

Most administrations in major cities throughout the world disagree with you Bill. If cycle-philia is a sickness, it's sure catching.

True, but most citizens in major cities throughout the world disagree with their administrations.

@Chris Keam
And in the 1950's-70's urban planners piled onto the freeway building craze. City planning, like everything else, goes in fads and phases. The mania for all things bike in urban planning schools will give way to the next big thing shortly.

"True, but most citizens in major cities throughout the world disagree with their administrations."

One wonders how they keep getting elected then.

"The mania for all things bike in urban planning schools will give way to the next big thing shortly."

Will that be jet-packs or the personal helicopter?

During my working years I had a 5:30AM start and no free parking at work - I lived at that time in Mt Pleasant and worked downtown - I bike commuted by necessity - tell me what time I could catch a bus at Broadway and Main to get to work so your BS post about bike being just recreational is just that BS.

You might want to go back at look at the Capital plan that the voters approved in the last civic election - I think you will find that there was money in there for bike lanes etc.

Bill - how much did the City spend on putting in the left turns lanes at Broadway and Clarke so that people with a piece of paper in their wallet that someone issued them on the premise that they know the rules of the road and wouldn`t keep colliding with each other - don`t forget to add the cost of the apartment building that was purchased - i think you will find that that one project cost about the same as all of the bike lanes.

PS - I do own a car.

Sorry if this is further hijacking of this thread but I felt it important to response to this posters post.

Out of curiosity, how many schools have received upgrades, and do those numbers include the newly built schools?

Next, the convention centre was well over due in terms of need. Vancouver was turning away tradeshow and convention business, which means it was turning away tax dollars that support other programs. I have no doubt the convention centre will pay for itself in short order. Conventions and tradeshows bring dollars to the convention centre, hotels, restaruants and other attractions.

The roof at BC Place needed to be done, or did you not see the news coverage from when it deflated and was sadly patched. Thankfully, no one got hurt. These structures age and need to be repaired or replaced. If the stadium now lasts another 20 - 30 years then the money is well worth it. FYI - not $600M, and the contract is guaranteed not to go over budget.

As I watched the coverage on the White Caps, I could not stop and think about the soccer/outdoor stadium we let slide through our fingers.

I tried to send an earlier message but for some reason it seemed to vanish?
Can Vancouver look after people if an earthquake happens?
My cousins survived the earthquake in New Zealand (barely)
A smaller city (better prepared)

We have hijacked this thread (once again politics)

All political parties play games.
Civil city, bike lanes, vertical density, harm reduction, etc,etc,etc,)
What about looking after your next door neighbour?

For no other reason then you care?

C'mon Chris, try e-bikes, e-cars, human-scale public transit and public area and road design that encourages human interaction, ex-the inherently dangerous segregated bike lanes.

"the inherently dangerous segregated bike lanes."

I don't think I've been to a social gathering in months where, when the topic of the separated lanes came up, somebody didn't comment about how much safer the lanes had made their bike commute. Sometimes that same person actually started riding to work downtown because of the lanes.

Smart cities make it possible for people to make good choices. Separated lanes are a part of that.

at my social gatherings the conversation is more about how going downtown is now something to be avoided.

That's because you hang out with bikeophiliacs. Decades on decades of research show the exact opposite to be true-the SENSE of safety is exactly what makes them dangerous

chris (one of many)

Re. earthquake preparedness, helping your neighbour and having lots of luck...

Read my comment @ an earlier post on City Caucus (March 03) under the title 'Heartbreaking'

and then #25 and #30 here:

Other interesting points of view in there as well.


Sorry, you're wrong. It's been a broad spectrum of people making those comments to me, some of whom I was quite surprised to hear they rode to work. None of them were basing their identity on how they get around the city, kind of like drivers and pedestrians and transit users.

I understand that marginalizing the many supporters of this initiative by suggesting they are a vocal cadre of zealots is useful for political ends, but it's inaccurate.

I agree Julia.

Since I no longer work downtown, I find I spend a lot less time (and money) in the core.

Friends and I head out to the RiverRock for a bit of gambling, dinner and a show, or over to Main or Commercial for a bite to eat.

The only time I head down is either for a work meeting or a Costco run.

I think those of us who live in Vancouver have to have a certain amount of denial about earthquakes.
It's amazing how this thread went completely off topic for so long.
Lot easier to bellow about bikes, than to face what we'd do in a major catastrophe.

We also aren't facing the wars that other countries are going through.

BUT we can have chickens in our backyards!

Any evidence for your claims?

Ask Gregor, I sent him and the rest of Council links to those studies months ago.

Whateva...the fact remains that the Hornby lanes are complex and confusing for both drivers and cyclists. We'll see what happens when summer comes. There are better ways to make cities bicycle friendly than constructing fatal funnels for inexperienced riders. As for political points, I've heard rumours you're considering running for Council under Vision's banner. Guess you're looking for a few too. Tell me if I'm wrong.

Max, 121 schools have been updated to date, cost is $600m = $5m per school. Elementary schools cost +/-$15-20m, Secondary +/-$75m. Mike's contention that all seismically deficient schools should be replaced would, therefore, need another source of funding other than we taxpayers methinks.

But, going to the next step in this conversation, where does one draw the line? Obviously it's far more cost effective to seismically retrofit than demo and new.

On the plus side: more kids are protected sooner (assuming the real funding limits, which are prompting this discussion in the 1st place), heritage is saved, less energy is required to retrofit, therefore this is 'greener' (+/-30% of the cost of constructing a building is energy cost), and scarce public funds are saved.

On the other side, the retro-ed buildings will not be as safe as a new one, and presumably a new school will provide a superior learning environment. Not easy political decisions.

Bill -

your comment takes the topic in an interesting direction. firstly there is a significant wack of potential savings in sticking with seismic upgrades, but there is still $ to be spent. Moreover, these are schools, and as such the investment in design is arguably worth the cost of the new buildings. This is the heart of debate in Britain right now, as the government struggles with its own decision to scrap a modernized building program in favour of a standardized design - saving architectural fees but at the expense of good design.

Here's a link to a guardian article on the debate:

What I am wondering out loud is whether we should be planning a capital program for school redesign based solely on the need for seismic refit (no arguments the odl buildings won't stand a good shake) or whether we need a step back from reactionary measures and move towards a more intensive plan for replacement schools where design enhancing the education experience is promoted (ie lets replace the little red schoolhouse completely).

This is the heart of the debate in England and if we are going to spend big $ refitting schools, is this a good opportunity to spend the $ to RETHINK the school design as well?

Throwing it out there ----


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