Developer sues engineers over structural issues at Magdalena apartment complex

Residents at the Magdalena say they’ve dealt with maintenance disruptions and security issues for over a year.

The developer of the troubled Magdalena apartment building in North Cowichan is suing an engineering company over structural deficiencies in the building.

WestUrban Developments Inc. hired Krahn Engineering Inc., an Abbotsford-based company, to oversee the building’s structural design. The developer alleges Krahn improperly designed the building, leading to structural issues that could threaten the lives of tenants if left unaddressed, according to a statement of claim filed with the B.C. Supreme Court on June 1, 2022. 

Krahn Engineering has not yet filed a response to the lawsuit. Reached by phone on Aug. 9, David Krahn, founder and chairman of Krahn Engineering, declined to comment and declined to say who might be able to respond on the company’s behalf. 

The building was completed in late 2019. Last month, WestUrban Property Management informed tenants it has applied to evict all tenants for at least six months in order to complete repairs. If the Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB) grants WestUrban the order of possession, tenants will then be given four months’ notice to vacate. 

Related story: Developer seeks to evict all tenants at North Cowichan rental complex, citing structural defects

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WestUrban Developments built the building and WestUrban Property Management, a related company, manages it. The Magdalena is owned by two companies, Green Road (Duncan) Limited Partnership and 1137364 B.C. Ltd., according to the court filing.

Tenants complain of maintenance disruptions, security concerns

Inside the building, residents complain of regular water shut-offs, elevator shut-downs, cracking drywall in units and hallways and doors that no longer close or latch shut.

According to email correspondence from WestUrban to residents that was provided to The Discourse, there were eight water shut-offs at the Magdalena between March 25 and July 11 2022, and one instance where there was no hot water available for the building. The shut-offs lasted between an hour and four hours, and in some cases, residents were given little to no notice about them.

For Magdalena residents Jess and Sean Phair, the water shut-offs regularly throw a wrench in their days. They say disruptions have been going on for the past year.

Sean and Jess Phair stand side-by-side with one arm around each other. They are standing on pavement and behind them is the entrance to the Magdalena building. Above their heads and behind them is the building's address marker, with large white numbers that say 4114. Sean is wearing a blue t-shirt and black shorts. Jess is wearing a black tank top and long blue and orange skirt.
Sean and Jess Phair, and their now two-year-old child, have lived in the Magdalena building since March, 2021. Photo by Shalu Mehta/The Discourse

“We have a two-year-old. Not having access to water is unacceptable in this day and age,” Jess says.

In an email response to questions from The Discourse, WestUrban Developments says that “a manufacturing defect with certain sections of pipe has required it to be gradually replaced,” and adds the rest of the defective pipe will be replaced when structural remediation work is carried out. The defective water pipe and structural deficiency issues are not related, according to the email.

The Phairs moved into the building in March 2021. Around that time, tenants became concerned with maintenance issues in the building, says the family’s friend and fellow Magdalena resident, John Voutier.

Shortly after, they say a unit on the first floor flooded due to pipes bursting. The same unit was flooded again a few months later.

Voutier has lived in the building since it opened and says he had plans to stay there for at least five years.

“The first year wasn’t half bad,” Voutier says. But since then, he says building residents have had to face water shut-offs, elevator shut-offs, lights being out in stairwells, floods and more.

Jess and Sean say there are cracks in the drywall in hallways and units, particularly around door frames and in the corners of rooms. Their bedroom door no longer closes because the latch and faceplate in the door frame are two inches apart. 

Exterior building doors don’t always close properly either, Jess says, and pose a security risk to tenants. In one case in May 2022, a non-resident of the building was able to enter and sleep in the lobby, according to an email from WestUrban to residents.

A door is cracked open slightly because it doesn't close properly, residents say. The door is on the side of the Magdalena building. It is on the left side of the photo, set into a concrete-looking wall with railings in front to indicate stairs coming down from the door.
An exterior door on the side of the Magdalena building that doesn’t close properly, according to residents. Photo by Shalu Mehta/The Discourse

The Discourse asked WestUrban what it has done to address the elevator shut-downs and exterior door issues. The company says the issues have been resolved and that WestUrban conducts building inspections thrice weekly to make sure important elements like door latches are in working condition. But Jess says the exterior doors still don’t close properly.

The Phairs would have moved out already, they say, but have struggled to find a place that is similarly affordable and pet-friendly.

Defects pose a danger to occupants, lawsuit alleges

The lawsuit alleges that, unbeknownst to WestUrban, Krahn’s design of the building has several structural defects. These include inadequate reinforcement and support of the main concrete slab floor, above the parkade. They also include insufficient strength in the plywood-paneled shear walls to resist lateral forces in high winds or an earthquake. 

These “are dangerous defects in that if not rectified, there is a serious risk of failure of structure elements of the Building … thereby presenting a real and substantial danger to the life and safety of occupants and others,” the notice of claim states. 

Engineers and Geoscientists British Columbia (EGBC) confirmed in an email to The Discourse that it is looking into the issue of Krahn Engineering’s work at the Magdalena, but that staff cannot share any specifics at this point. 

EGBC investigates “any situation when we receive information that indicates our professional or ethical standards have not been met,” according to the email. That process can lead to disciplinary action, including fines and license suspensions. Disciplinary hearings and their outcomes are public.

Ongoing occupancy at Magdalena is safe, North Cowichan says

Despite the significant issues, the building remains safe to live in, says North Cowichan Mayor Al Siebring. “That was our primary concern, because that’s where our liability lies right now. And it is safe for ongoing occupancy at this point. Absolutely,” he says.

Rob Conway, the municipality’s director of planning and building, says staff are relying on information from WestUrban and the engineering firm hired for the remediation work (not Krahn Engineering) to ensure the ongoing safety of occupants. 

Municipal staff had no indication of issues that might pose a safety threat to occupants until late July 2022, Conway says. At that point, the department requested documentation to confirm the building is in fact safe. 

WestUrban sent the designs for the temporary shoring in the parkade and documents from the engineers now involved in the remediation work to municipal staff. They are still waiting on some additional documentation, Conway says. 

“The fact that the shoring has been installed, and that there has been engineered designs for that, does give us some comfort that it’s being handled appropriately.”

A "closed" sign on a building parkade entrance
The parking garage at the Magdalena building remains closed for remediation work. Photo by Shalu Mehta/The Discourse

In response to questions about the building’s safety, WestUrban emailed The Discourse the following statement:

“When WestUrban learned that a structural deficiency in the building’s design posed an imminent risk, we took immediate action to install temporary shoring in the parkade to ensure that the building continues to stay safe for occupants until further remediation works can be carried out. We notified tenants at the time about the structural deficiency and are grateful for their cooperation and understanding as we moved quickly to address it.

“WestUrban has ensured that the work plans for both the temporary shoring and the full remediation of the Magdalena building have been independently reviewed. This review was completed by the highly regarded structural engineering firm, Glotman Simpson.

“We are confident that these remediation works will fully resolve the structural deficiency in the Magdalena building.”

North Cowichan notified of parkade issues in September 2021

Conway says staff first became aware of issues at the building in September 2021, when they received an application for a permit to do remediation work on the parkade. 

“We were told that it was resulting from this peer review report that had come about from a third party that identified some issues,” Conway says. 

Krahn Engineering — the firm now being sued — applied for that permit, and WestUrban was to carry out the work, according to the building permit document, which was issued on March 2, 2022. The value of the work was estimated at $1 million.

Since then, the scope of work required has expanded significantly, Conway says. The work described in that permit is not yet complete, and an additional permit will be required to complete the remediation, he says.

Tenants say they were not specifically informed of structural problems in the building until June 1, 2022. At that point, WestUrban emailed tenants about a structural deficiency in the parkade “due to oversights by the third-party engineer who designed the building.” 

All tenants were asked to remove their vehicles, bicycles and personal property from the parkade by 4 p.m. on June 3, 2022 so remediation work could begin. WestUrban provided alternative parking options for tenants.

Jess, Sean and John say they observed jacks holding up the pilings in the parking garage before they lost access to it. In an emailed statement, WestUrban says the “temporary shoring in the parkade ensures that the building continues to stay safe until occupants move out and more substantial remediation works can take place.”

WestUrban stopped filling vacancies last year, tenants say

But tenants say they had an idea something serious might be wrong with the building about a year ago, when they noticed WestUrban was no longer filling vacancies at the Magdalena.

“If they knew about this, why didn’t they try to accommodate us when they put the new building up?” asks Voutier, referencing a new 96-unit building on Government Street in Duncan built through a partnership between WestUrban and Cowichan Tribes.

John Voutier is pictured from the waist up and standing in the parking lot behind the Magdalena building. Behind him on the left is the corner of the building and some vehicles parked in front of it. On the right is blue sky. John is wearing a black t-shirt.
John Voutier has lived at the Magdalena since it opened. He says things started getting worse around March 2021. Photo by Shalu Mehta/The Discourse

After noticing several vacancies in the building, Jess emailed WestUrban in May 2022 to ask if she, Sean and their toddler could move from their one-bedroom suite to a two-bedroom unit. She received an email response saying a two-bedroom unit would soon be available and that her name was added to a waiting list.

Jess replied saying she knew of several units that had been sitting empty already, including one that was next door to her. On June 6, after tenants learned about the parkade remediation work, WestUrban’s manager of property services replied to Jess in an email, saying the vacant units would be used to house the construction crew working on the parkade.

It’s unclear if WestUrban intends to house construction workers in the building during the remediation work. Tenants have not noticed workers living in the building. 

As of late July, when tenants were notified of the RTB proceedings, 48 of the building’s 64 units were occupied, according to Mayor Siebring. A few more tenants have moved out since then, he says, citing information from a conference call with WestUrban and others.

What’s next for tenants

The B.C. government changed the rules for so-called “renovictions” last year. As a result, WestUrban must apply to the RTB for an order of possession, and can only issue four-month eviction notices if a mediator agrees that vacancy is necessary. 

A pre-conference hearing is scheduled for Nov. 21, 2022. A formal hearing will follow, giving residents the opportunity to challenge the landlord’s request, if they would like to. 

WestUrban has promised a free month’s rent and the full return of damage deposits to tenants, including for those who choose to end their tenancy before they are forced out.

Meanwhile, North Cowichan is seeking more support for the tenants’ relocation. In an interview on Aug. 4, Mayor Siebring said he is requesting a meeting with B.C.’s housing minister to request emergency support.

“If an apartment building burns down, it’s considered an emergency and the province steps in with all kinds of help for short term housing,” Siebring said. “This place isn’t burning down, but it’s no less of an emergency, with the rental vacancy rate that we’re facing.”

Siebring also wrote to Cowichan Housing Association seeking support relocating tenants and potentially managing emergency funds. 

He also wrote to WestUrban asking that staff do more in terms of supporting tenants with moving costs, or with guarantees that tenants who return to the building after renovations won’t face steep rent increases. That said, the extent to which WestUrban is permitted to raise rents for returning tenants may be decided through the RTB process, Siebring added. [end]

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