It’s high time Victoria heeds seismic wake-up call on legislature building

It’s high time Victoria heeds seismic wake-up call on legislature building

Governments from Washington to California have shelled out to protect their seats of government. The B.C. government should too.

When a magnitude-6.8 earthquake rumbled through Washington state a dozen years ago, it loosened pillars, separated plaster and cracked the 87-metre-high dome at the venerable capitol building in Olympia.

The damage could have been worse. The capitol building, home to the state legislature, had been roiled by quakes in 1949 and again in 1965, which prompted significant structural upgrades.

Still, the third quake in a little over 50 years compelled the state to redouble efforts to preserve what was widely regarded as one of its most historic buildings, as well as one of the most beautiful.

Over the four years following the Nisqually quake of February 2001, the state shelled out $120 million (U.S.) on a combined seismic upgrade and renovation of the capitol, putting a building that opened in 1928 on track for a second century.

Neighbouring Oregon has experienced first-hand the seismic vulnerability of its own state house in Salem. Twenty years ago, a 5.6-magnitude quake cracked the dome, shifting the statue of a pioneer on top of the capitol and forcing closure of the rotunda until $4 million worth of repairs were completed two years later.

To mark this year’s 75th anniversary of the capitol, the state has launched a more ambitious renovation and retrofit. The $300-million project will ensure the graceful art deco structure is able to withstand a magnitude-7.0 quake.

Los Angeles spent $300 million to retrofit its city hall following the 6.7-magnitude Northridge quake in the 1990s. The 32-storey structure, made famous in television shows and movies from Dragnet to the Bad News Bears, is now engineered to withstand an 8.2-magnitude shaker, not unthinkable in Southern California.

Oakland, California considered abandoning its city hall after the structure sustained major damage in the 6.9-magnitude Loma Prieta quake of 1989. Instead, the city spent $85 million on a retrofit that “floated” the Beaux-Arts style building on rubber bearings allowing it to shift as much as 50 centimetres from side to side during a seismic event.

Some 280 “base isolators” were key to a recent renovation and seismic retrofit of the state house in Salt Lake City, Utah, that readied the structure to withstand a 7.3-magnitude quake. Price tag: $260 million.

Each of the aforementioned jurisdictions recognized the inevitable: sooner or later, in a geologically active region like the one we share with them, a major earthquake will inflict serious damage or perhaps even collapse on the structure that is the seat of government. They also faced up to the not-inconsiderable cost of preserving a heritage building that was as old as it was irreplaceable.

But here in B.C., both government and Opposition have balked at addressing the no-less-real threat to the more than-100-year-old provincial legislature building.

“When every last elementary school in B.C. has been seismically upgraded, then we can attend to this building,” as New Democrat John Horgan put it just the other day, and he was speaking for members on both sides of the house.

The occasion was a report to the all-party legislative assembly management committee on the imminent need to spend $6 million rectifying a shift in the dome of the legislature. Part of a projected $70 million worth of repair and maintenance that ought to be done sooner than later. Both preludes to a full-blown seismic retrofit, estimated at a quarter of a billion dollars, maybe more.

Real money to be sure, and one can readily understand why cautious politicians would hesitate to spend it on making their workplace safer for themselves, as many would see it.

But the value of “the ledge,” as it is known colloquially in the capital, is not as an occasional (lately very occasional) debating chamber for politicians. Nor is it simply a matter of preserving any old building. Though the adjacent armoury building, where my office is located, is even older, I wouldn’t waste $1 preserving it because it is as ugly as it is ready to fall down in a stiff wind.

The legislature building merits special treatment for historical as well as architectural reasons. Its unique status is validated by the almost 90,000 people who visit every year, including — ahem — the many children who attend some 350 special school tours.

The province is spending hundreds of millions of dollars seismically retrofitting bridges, hydroelectric dams, transmission lines, all manner of public buildings, and even a sports stadium. Our most irreplaceable heritage structure deserves a place on the priority list as well.

The last government to fully recognize the importance of the place was the one headed by Dave Barrett. His 1972-75 New Democratic Party government launched the first extensive restoration of the legislature, committing $40 million at a time when the annual provincial budget for museums, art galleries and libraries was $4 million.

Forty years later, a similarly inspired exercise is no less overdue, albeit on a schedule that might well be spread over a decade or two for the full-blown restoration and retrofit.

Ideally, it would start with the appointment of an independent panel, endorsed by all parties but separated from any bad feelings about today’s crop of politicians, and dedicated to coming up with a plan for saving what is surely the finest building in B.C.


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