aging structures

Aging structures on financially shaky ground

Seismic status, neglect and obsolescence contribute to Heritage Canada's landmarks at risk
Tuesday, June 23, 2015
By Barbara Carss

Heritage Canada’s annual list of endangered places exemplifies the challenges of maintaining aging structures and/or undeveloped sites in changing times. This year’s top 10, chosen through public nominations, provide both an inventory of landmarks at risk and a commentary on social trends and economic dilemmas that undermine efforts to productively preserve significant buildings, engineering and natural features.

Threats take various guises — loss of original purpose; encroaching urbanization; regulatory compliance pressures — but preservation typically depends on finding funds to counter competing land uses and to ensure buildings can function as modern standards dictate. Almost by definition, heritage buildings are out of step with current building codes. Property owners may face hefty environmental cleanup costs, particularly to make former industrial lands suitable for commercial or residential uses, while older buildings in some regions require seismic upgrades.

Seismic upgrades stress budgets

Vancouver’s 86-year-old Point Grey Secondary School offers an example of two seemingly reasonable perspectives that nevertheless lead to fairly divergent priorities and outcomes. Heritage advocates value the building’s Collegiate Gothic design, interior features that include wood-beamed ceilings, metal lanterns and coloured leaded glass windows, and the legacy of its designers, Townley & Matheson. Meanwhile, its owner, the Vancouver School Board (VSB), is entrusted with the safety of the building’s occupants and is responsible for a portfolio of buildings that must meet provincial seismic mitigation standards.

As of May 2015, the government of British Columbia’s website lists 125 schools throughout the province considered at high risk for structural collapse in an earthquake that have not yet been allocated funding for upgrades or replacement. Required work has been completed on 146 schools, while 68 are either under construction or have been promised financing.

Point Grey Secondary School is actually among 23 of the VSB’s schools that have received provincial approval to proceed with upgrades. Yet, Heritage Canada fears that may take the form of demolition and replacement – a fate four of the city’s high-risk schools have already experienced.

“Given the Vancouver School Board’s handling of past seismic upgrades, along with the (provincial) seismic mitigation program’s inadequate funding envelope, heritage advocates are concerned that the school board will resort to widespread demolition, even in the case of Point Grey Secondary,” Heritage Canada’s Endangered Places overview states. “They say that seismic upgrading costs are inflated due to years of deferred maintenance and that the VSB also claims that older schools are inadequate for today’s educational needs.”

A 2011 engineering audit concluded required seismic upgrades at Point Grey would cost $22.7 million; a comprehensive retrofit to address other capital deficiencies and enhance energy efficiency and other asset conditions was priced at $34.6 million, while replacement was estimated at $37.8 million. This occurs in the broader context of the projected $1.1 billion cost of undertaking full upgrades in the 58 schools the engineering report assessed compared to estimated outright replacement costs of $858 million. Notably, 26 schools registered facility condition indexes greater than 0.30, meaning they are deemed to have significant deferred maintenance requiring higher capital expenditure to correct deficiencies.

Obsolete facilities, disinterested owners

The 160+-year-old Barber Paper Mill in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) community of Halton Hills/Georgetown suffers from what Heritage Canada calls a “stakeholder impasse”. For sale signs have now been posted on the property after a decade-long failed attempt to redevelop it.

Decommissioned and vacant since 1980s, the 19th-century industrial complex boasted hydroelectric power, uniquely delivered in 1888 via a long-distance transmission network from the generating station three kilometres downstream. “The complex contributes to both the history of paper milling in Canada and the pioneering use of hydroelectric power,” Heritage Canada observes.

Most recently, in 2010, the property owner proposed a 65-room hotel and associated retail space for the 12-acre site — a project likened to transformation of similarly aged industrial buildings in Kitchener, Ontario and Toronto’s Distillery District — but did not move forward to obtain required development approvals. This followed an earlier proposal for a 14-storey condominium tower, which local officials had rejected.

“The buildings are suffering from demolition by neglect, at risk from wildlife, weather, vandalism and arson,” the Endangered Places report states. “In 2012, the municipality used its Property Standards Bylaw to force a site cleanup and have fencing secured. Partial demolition of some of the buildings was subsequently approved by the municipality.”

Montreal’s former Miséricorde Hospital similarly highlights the plight of obsolete health care buildings. A convent-based hospital for more than a 100 years, the Quebec government took over upon the formation of the Ministry of Health and Social Services in the late 1960s. A long-term care facility, Centre hospitalier Jacques-Viger, then called the address home from 1975 to 2013.

Heritage advocates say the property is important for its cultural legacy “as a reminder of the essential role religious communities played in 19th-century Montreal life”, for its architectural style and for its key location in a downtown heritage district. They fear that its current vacant state further contributes to structural deterioration.

“To date, there is no plan to adapt the facility to a new use,” Heritage Canada reports. “Masonry restoration is badly needed along with the revitalization of the complex that comes with a conversion to a new use.”

Religious architecture also figures prominently on this year’s list, with somewhat the same story for each of the three endangered candidates in Windsor, Ontario; Sackville, New Brunswick; and Rustico, Prince Edward Island. The two churches and a former convent now used as a spiritual centre have suffered the one-two punch of dwindling congregations and aging building components and systems that require capital injection.

Notably, Windsor’s Our Lady of Assumption Church, which ceased operation in November 2014, requires an estimated $10 to $15-million investment in essential structural, electrical, mechanical and life safety repairs and upgrades. A demolition permit was issued in March 2015 for the former Sackville United Church, which had already been closed and sold to a private developer in 2013. The new owner has been instructed to salvage significant elements, including a set of stained glass windows, as a condition of the permit.

Heritage Canada’s remaining four endangered places include two deteriorating bridges and two natural sites.

Pictured is the abandoned Barber Paper Mill site in Georgetown, Ontario. Photo by Chris Torry.

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