Renovating current emergency buildings in Prince Rupert not a viable option, Architect

The RCMP, Fire Dept. and an architect told the Prince Rupert Council that renos aren't the answer to the emergency building issue.

Representatives from the local and provincial RCMP, the Prince Rupert Fire Department and an architect sat before council on Monday to discuss the pros and cons of renovating the existing emergency service buildings, replacing them with new ones, or building a joint-use building for the police and fire fighters to share.

While the speakers were careful not to tell the council what it should do, the underlying message was clear: simply renovating the existing buildings is not a viable solution no matter what way you look at it. The only real options available to council are to build something new whether it be two new buildings or a single huge building.

Witmar Abele is an architect with KMBR Architects and Planning Inc. and has experience in designing emergency buildings, especially Fire Halls. Abele has been working on the emergency building issue for the City of Prince Rupert since last July and was the one to lead the public presentation to the council.

According Abele, there are a number of problems with the prospect of simply renovating the existing buildings. The first being that there’s not enough space available on their current lots.

Both the Fire Department and the RCMP have said that their current buildings do not meet their operational requirements and there is an extensive list of things that their buildings will need, some of which will be mandatory in order to comply with regulations.

For instance, even if the City only renovates the current Fire Hall, in order to be compliant with the rules, they will be required to convert its garage into a drive-through design. So instead of having to back the firetrucks into the garage off a busy street – which is what the fire department does now – they would drive around back and pull through back doors so the firetrucks can be parked facing the street.

The problem is that firetrucks need a lot of room to manoeuvre so there would need a large paved area behind the building so that the fire trucks could turn to reach the back doors. But there’s no way to fit that on the Fire Hall’s current lot because behind the building is a shear cliff with the Crest Hotel’s parking lot on top of it.

The same problem faces the RCMP building. In order to meet current RCMP standards, the station must expands its secure area to contain interviewing rooms, and at least two holding cells and 10 regular cells, which must meet suicide prevention standards. Currently, the RCMP building has one holding cell and three regular cells, that even the detachment’s leader says are dangerous suicide risks.

“In the last year there have been two suicide attempts in our cells. The risk is real, it’s not something we’re making up and it does put people in our custody at risk,” Inspector Bob Kilberry told council.

In order to bring that building up to even the minimum requirements set out by the police would require a 7000 square-foot extension which means the building’s footprint would spill out beyond its property lines. This is further complicated by the fact that there is a public lane that cuts through the property which is used by residents living on 5th Avenue, thus limiting the space available even further, unless the City wants to close it off.

“There’s no way for all the current standards for RCMP buildings can be accommodated on this site,” says the architect, Witmar Abele.

But council wasn’t so sure. Councillor Joy Thorkelson floated the idea of saving space on the current lot by having underground parking for police vehicles. RCMP representative Eric Miller explained that the RCMP doesn’t use underground parking facilities for security reasons, explaining that it would make an attempt at bombing the police building much more destructive.

Another solution proposed by councillors was to build on top of the buildings rather than outward in order to save space, but that leads into the next problem for renovating the current emergency buildings: the buildings themselves aren’t in very good shape to begin with.

As described at the previous meeting the structural problems with both buildings are numerous, and Abele points out that both buildings do not meet structural standards for buildings that are needed after an earthquake; a big problem for a town in seismically active area.

With all of the problems the RCMP faces, Abele says that to renovate it and bring it up to standards would involve “gutting it down to the bones” and rebuilding most of it.

He’s even less optimistic about the possibility of renovating the Fire Hall.

“Putting any money into this building is throwing good money after bad,” says Abele.

Even if council decided to go ahead with renovating the buildings, it would have to be in phases since the police and fire department are essential services, they obviously can’t shut the buildings down while the renovations are happening, which would draw the process out making it more expensive.

When you add all those factors up, says Adele, the cost of renovating starts to come pretty close to the cost of just building a new one, only you get worse-quality building at the end of it. Although he didn’t provide any estimates of the costs of doing either.