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Amid safety concerns, Fairfax County finds hundreds of aging high-rises

Safety crews investigate after the partial collapse and demolition of a Surfside, Florida, high-rise (via NIST)

Following the collapse of a 40-year-old high-rise in Surfside, Fla., officials in Fairfax County and across the country are looking to prevent a similar tragedy.

“Anything we can do to prevent such a [tragedy] from happening again, we want to do,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said yesterday (Tuesday) during a Land Use Policy Committee meeting.

County staff have identified 202 high-rises in the area that are at least 25 years or older, including 100 that are 25-30 years old, 41 that are 30-35 years old, and 46 that are 40 years old or more.

At nearly 50%, the biggest concentration of high-rises in Fairfax County is in Providence District, Fairfax County Department of Land Development Services Director Bill Hicks told the board. Those buildings were defined as being at least 75 feet or higher.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously directed staff on July 13 to assess the availability of resources for inspections and other options for improving the safety of aging buildings after the June 24 partial collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside.

For the Surfside condominium, a 2018 engineering report had warned of major structural damage. The 12-story building’s collapse killed 98 people.

In his joint board matter with Sully District Supervisor Kathy Smith from the July 13 meeting, McKay noted that Virginia lacks a recertification program for older buildings.

While buildings must undergo numerous inspections, reviews, and more to get an initial certificate of occupancy, they are only inspected again if there is a change in occupancy or alterations that require inspection, the City of Alexandria said in July when urging Virginia to update its regulations.

Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson raised the issue in the wake of the Surfside collapse, stating that the city has “most of the residential high-rise buildings” in the Commonwealth. The River Towers Condominium in Alexandria evacuated amid structural damage in 2016.

Like other local governments, Fairfax County has a complaint-driven code compliance system intended to address potentially unsafe building conditions.

“My concern is in a lot of these buildings, not only would people not necessarily know who to complain to, but if they did complain, they’d probably complain to the management or the rental office or the condo association, maybe not necessarily to the county,” McKay said.

The county’s website explains how people can contact staff by phone, email, and complaint forms to address issues.

But the board stressed that it wants county workers to provide proactive outreach, such as by having the county’s fire marshal office communicate with a property manager or homeowners’ association leaders.

“We can at least convey broader safety issues that maybe they hadn’t thought about, and it’s a good way of reminding them,” Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck said.

McKay suggested newer buildings might have different outreach approaches than older buildings, adding that the county’s review was not to raise alarm, but to help share county resources with residents.

Hicks told the board that the Department of Code Compliance will begin tracking cases that might be associated with an aging building.

“They track all of their work now, but they would categorize them so they would look for these sorts of requests,” Hicks said, noting that the county could also add more staff to assist with inspections.

The county chose the 25-year threshold for buildings to review to provide a level of comparison, Hicks said after the meeting. The age range was not meant to represent a program for building recertification or anything related to structural durability.

According to Hicks, Miami-Dade’s building recertification program, which covers Surfside, focuses on buildings that have reached 40 years, and other than one in nearby Broward County, it was the only such program that county staff could find across the country that’s currently active.

A program in Los Angeles is “forthcoming,” according to the presentation to the board.

The U.S. Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology is investigating the collapse of Champlain Towers South. According to spokesperson Jennifer Huergo, a final report could take years to complete.

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