Far from Florida, mayors fear prospect of a collapse in their own cities

By Mitch Smith

When it rains outside in Kansas City, Missouri, 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 stormwater 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, Florida. 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, D.C.; and Jersey City, New Jersey.

“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.”

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.

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.

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,” Fulop said.

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.”

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, which was built more than 80 years ago and towers 29 stories above downtown, was in danger.

Kansas City residents 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.

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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