Far From Florida, Mayors Fear Prospect of a Collapse in Their Own Cities

Some places are weighing new inspection requirements for aging structures, while others are focused on enforcing existing rules.,

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When it rains outside in Kansas City, Mo., it also rains inside the rickety underground garage at City Hall, where parking spaces for the mayor and city manager sit below rebar and crumbled concrete that musty storm water can easily seep through.

The garage’s decay had long been obvious to Kansas City leaders. After all, they park there. But fixing it had not been an urgent priority until nearly 100 people died last month in the collapse of a condominium building in Surfside, Fla. Since then, the pedestrian plaza above the publicly owned City Hall garage has been fenced off, dozens of municipal workers have been told they must soon park elsewhere and officials have discussed how to identify and fix other decrepit structures in the city.

Across the country, local officials have looked nervously to their own skylines and wondered whether a crisis might be looming. Since the tragedy in Florida, plans to step up inspections, enforce existing rules or crack down on problem properties have emerged in Los Angeles County, Washington, and Jersey City, N.J.

“There is a true structural and, I think, life threat in not addressing the core infrastructure issue,” said Mayor Quinton Lucas of Kansas City, who said the Surfside collapse made him think more deeply about the implications of parking in a troubled garage. “I just don’t think we are thinking about dangerous buildings in a broad enough way.”

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Mayor Quinton Lucas in the parking garage at City Hall.Credit…Chase Castor for The New York Times

Code compliance and structural engineering rarely animate voters the same way as taxes or crime, or even street repaving, so building safety is often relegated to the margins of municipal governance, with little attention and insufficient funding.

Many places have rigorous inspections and permitting requirements for new structures, but there is often limited follow-up in the decades after construction is completed. Supervision of existing structures is delegated to a patchwork of local and state governments and condo boards. And even when rules are in place — like in Kansas City, where owners of private parking garages are supposed to file periodic inspection reports with the city — compliance and enforcement are often lacking.

“I just think it’s been a blind spot for states and cities for a long, long time,” said Mayor Steven Fulop of Jersey City, who has proposed an ordinance that would require facade inspections every five years and structural inspections every 10 years for high-rises. “We’re building a lot of buildings without ongoing safety checks after a reasonable amount of time.”

Though large, occupied buildings rarely collapse in the United States unless there is an earthquake, terrorist attack or some other precipitating event, a significant building failure can be catastrophic.

Mr. Fulop said that in the days after the Florida collapse, as news emerged that structural problems at the Surfside tower had festered for years, his office began receiving emails from Jersey City residents worried about deferred maintenance in their own buildings.

Mr. Fulop said his office became aware of one condo association that had accumulated almost $50 million in deferred maintenance, meaning each homeowner could be charged hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair the structure. The steep price tag and lack of enforcement, he said, had allowed the situation to worsen.

“Clearly, if you leave those condo boards up to make their own decisions all the time, there’s competing interest with regard to affordability that sometimes compromises safety,” Mr. Fulop said.

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A condominium building collapse in Surfside, Fla., killed nearly 100 people last month.Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

But requiring more inspections can also raise costs for property owners. And without follow-up, even the most thorough inspection will not prevent a collapse. Though the cause of the Surfside collapse remains under investigation, a consultant had urged the property owners three years earlier to repair “major structural damage.”

“The stepped-up inspections will be helpful if they are not inspecting superficial aspects — There’s a crack here, so patch the crack,” said Abieyuwa Aghayere, a professor of engineering at Drexel University. “If cracks are happening, why is the crack happening? Why is the crack there? If they’re just sending out inspectors, who may not be engineers, I worry it’s just another make-work kind of project.”

The proposals that have emerged across the country since the Surfside collapse vary widely in scope and specificity. Some changes already have been enacted while others are still in the early stages of policymaking.

In the Los Angeles area, county supervisors have called for inspections of high-rise buildings in Marina del Rey, where some residents are worried about the safety of their buildings. In Washington, where a condo building under construction recently collapsed, Mayor Muriel Bowser has imposed citywide permitting and inspection requirements, which she described as an “early warning system” for unsafe buildings. And in New York, lawmakers urged the state government to require inspections of coastal buildings.

Frequently Asked Questions

It could take months for investigators to determine precisely why a significant portion of the Surfside, Fla., building collapsed. But there are already some clues about potential reasons for the disaster, including design or construction flaws. Three years before the collapse, a consultant found evidence of “major structural damage” to the concrete slab below the pool deck and “abundant” cracking and crumbling of the columns, beams and walls of the parking garage. Engineers who have visited the wreckage or viewed photos of it say that damaged columns at the building’s base may have less steel reinforcement than was originally planned.

Condo boards and homeowners’ associations often struggle to convince residents to pay for needed repairs, and most of Champlain Towers South’s board members resigned in 2019 because of their frustrations. In April, the new board chair wrote to residents that conditions in the building had “gotten significantly worse” in the past several years and that the construction would now cost $15 million instead of $9 million. There had also been complaints from residents that the construction of a massive, Renzo Piano-designed residential tower next door was shaking Champlain Towers South.

Even though Florida’s high-rise building regulations have long been among the strictest in the nation so they could stand up to hurricane winds, flooding and rain, along with the corrosive effects of salty air, evidence has mounted that those rules have been enforced unevenly by local governments. Engineers are conducting a thorough review of Champlain Towers North, a nearly identical building, to determine whether it could also be vulnerable. In nearby North Miami Beach, residents of the Crestview Towers were swiftly evacuated after a report documented cracks and corrosion in the building’s structure. And Bal Harbour 101 is spending an estimated $4.5 million in repairs. Now, residents throughout the region who long glamorized oceanfront condos are debating whether they should put their homes on the market.

Entire family units died because the collapse happened in the middle of the night, when people were sleeping. The parents and children killed in Unit 802, for example, were Marcus Joseph Guara, 52, a fan of the rock band Kiss and the University of Miami Hurricanes; Anaely Rodriguez, 42, who embraced tango and salsa dancing; Lucia Guara, 11, who found astronomy and outer space fascinating; and Emma Guara, 4, who loved the world of princesses. A floor-by-floor look at the victims shows the extent of the devastation.

A 15-year-old boy and his mother were rescued from the rubble shortly after the building fell. She died in a hospital, however, and no more survivors were found during two weeks of a search-and-rescue mission. There had been hope that demolishing the remaining structure would allow rescuers to safely explore voids where someone could possibly have survived. But only bodies were found. There were 97 confirmed victims through July 14.

“It’s scary we have no info on the state of our buildings,” said State Senator Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Island.

Kansas City officials said they did not believe that the City Hall garage was at risk of collapsing, nor did they think City Hall itself, built more than 80 years ago and towering 29 stories above downtown, was in danger.

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The pedestrian plaza above the City Hall garage in Kansas City has been fenced off while officials discuss how to identify and fix other decrepit structures in the city.Credit…Chase Castor for The New York Times

But pieces of concrete have fallen in recent years from the ceiling of the garage, putting cars and pedestrians at risk. Engineers were worried enough about the risk of heavy loads on the ceiling that they recently had crews fence off the grassy expanse directly above the garage, long a favorite site for news conferences and lunch breaks and protests. Even the fountains on the plaza were drained.

“There’s just fear that there might be areas that we can’t see until we remove the top where the concrete could puncture through if there were many people in a compact area,” James Freed, the city architect, said.

Kansas Citians know firsthand the consequences of engineering failures. Forty years ago this month, 114 people died when skywalks collapsed at a Hyatt hotel, one of the deadliest accidental building failures in modern American history.

Mayor Lucas is seeking approval for a plan to inspect buildings in Kansas City owned or leased by the city, with the possibility of eventually expanding that to privately owned high-rises. Downtown Kansas City, which experienced a revival in the years before the coronavirus pandemic, is dominated by a mix of aging office towers, soaring industrial buildings that have been converted into lofts and new glass-walled high-rises.

As for the City Hall garage and the plaza above, the city is awaiting estimates on how many millions of dollars it might cost to make the area safe. Then it will be up to the City Council to decide whether to patch up the structure for a few years or pursue a more comprehensive rebuild that might be sturdy for decades.

“Now’s the time to invest in things like this, do it the right way for the longest amount of time,” said Brian Platt, the city manager. “Unfortunately, it takes an event like what happened in Miami to push people in that direction sometimes.”

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