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Seismic, space issues key reasons cited for new Royal B.C. Museum

Business case study for project found that replacing is better than fixing. Price tag is $789 million and a seven-year timeline.
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A business case for replacing the Royal British Columbia Museum says the existing structures' flood and seismic risk are high, noting the 12-storey Fannin Tower of collections and offices, the main exhibit hall and the B.C. Archives are all considered vulnerable to catastrophic events. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

The province’s business case for building a new ­$789-million home for the Royal British Columbia Museum hinges on seismic risk, significant amounts of hazardous ­materials, ­not enough space, and ­a need for better facilities to maintain its vast collections.

The province argues it would be less expensive to build a new museum than to repair the current one.

“We understand this ­investment is a lot of money,” Tourism Minister Melanie Mark said at a news conference Wednesday. “We won’t kick this project down the road … there is a risk to doing nothing.”

News of the huge price tag to replace the museum caught many people by surprise on May 13, when Premier John Horgan and Mark made the announcement that the province would be tearing down the museum complex for a new facility.

The existing buildings are set to close in September, but the new museum isn’t expected to open until 2030.

Pushback began immediately, with some critics arguing the money would be better spent on health care, housing and seismic work needed on hospitals and more than 250 schools in B.C. — half of those on Vancouver Island and 27 alone in the Greater Victoria School District.

Mark said the province is working on those issues, too, but the museum also needs to be a priority. She said previous governments dating back to 2008 were aware of problems with the museum “and did nothing.”

In a more than 90-minute technical briefing containing hundreds of pages of documents — some redacted — government officials said the existing structures’ flood and seismic risk are high, noting the 12-storey Fannin Tower of collections and offices, the main exhibit hall and the B.C. Archives are all considered vulnerable to catastrophic events — and the potential loss of 500,000 years of collected history.

An assessment from WSP Canada Inc. said the structural seismic capacity for the museum’s nine buildings is at 40% or lower, with the archives building — with two floors underground — receiving just a 5% rating.

Some world-class touring exhibits have turned down the RBCM’s requests to host exhibits because of the facility’s poor infrastructure for loading and displaying exhibits, the briefing said — including a Blue Whale exhibit that included a skull of the main attraction that could not fit into a museum elevator.

Officials at the briefing also showed images of damages to concrete floor joists in the Fannin Tower, flooding at the archives and in museum toilets in November 2021 that caused temporary closures, and hundreds of artifacts stacked in piles in cramped rooms.

Repatriation of some Indigenous artifacts has also been delayed because of the museum’s current layout, they said, noting a totem pole that it’s trying to return to a First Nation would require an entire wall to be removed, potentially exposing people to asbestos, before being craned out from the third floor.

The business case studied five options: status quo, replace on a new site, replace on the current site, revitalize or repair the current site.

Cost assessments on the options, translated from 2018 into 2022 numbers, showed repairing and revitalizing the buildings while parts of the museum complex remained operating would take six to seven years and cost $979 million to $1.37 billion.

The government also shortlisted 20 possible Greater Victoria sites to build a new museum, but none were deemed viable. Viable sites in the downtown core “did not exist,” it said.

The business case puts the total cost of the new museum complex at $789.5 million — $550 million for the design and construction contract plus $239.5 for contingencies, abatement and demolition as well as gallery fit-outs.

The price estimate allocates $230 million to account for escalation in construction costs between now and 2030, including 10% in 2022 and 9% in 2023, trending down to 4% to 2025.

Some portions of the business case were redacted, including the capital cost breakdown of each of the project’s building components. The government said it was necessary to preserve the integrity of the procurement process.

The design of the new museum is also blacked out, with officials at the technical briefing saying the museum’s final design will depend on consultations with the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations and what potential architects submit.

Though the government has budgeted $789.5 million, the business case states it is also banking on receiving donations, likely through a donors program, to help fund the project.

Marks indicated there is hope for federal funding, mentioning Wednesday she and the premier spent some time with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during his visit to British Columbia this week, though she did not say if they discussed any cost sharing.

A new research and collections building in Colwood has already been approved and is set to be completed by 2025, although the cost increased by more than 20% to $224 million over the past year, bringing the total museum replacement cost to more than $1 billion.

Public engagement on designs for the new downtown museum is expected to start this fall, after the current museum closes Sept. 6, and the government will begin the procurement process for the new building.

By next spring, the exhibition hall contents will be moved to a leased warehouse in North Saanich, which is now being fitted with temperature-controlled storage vaults. That process is expected to take up to three years as the government begins a complex “sequencing” process of moving artifacts and archives out of existing facilities and into storage and the new collections building in Colwood.

Officials said the careful cleaning, packing and storing of thousands of artifacts will take time. The technical briefing said a single Indigenous mask can take several hours to clean, and then a specialized box has to be made to fit the artifact.

A Royal Dalton toilet from the Dunsmuir family, presented at the briefing, is being encased in foam and fitted into a custom box.

In spring 2024, consultation will begin on the design of the new building.

Crews will also start removing asbestos and start demolishing the exhibition hall. The business case said identification and location of hazardous materials — including mercury, lead, arsenic and others — has already begun. Many aspects of the main exhibit hall, archives and Fannin Tower — built from 1967 to 1969 — all fall short of 2015 federal building codes as well as the latest building code updates of 2020, provincial officials said.

In July 2025, construction will start on a new museum, with a projected opening in the second quarter of 2030.

The museum’s collection consists of seven million objects, with fewer than one per cent on display at any given time.

The new museum building will increase in size by about 26%, according to the business case, allowing for more exhibit areas, learning areas and collections space.

Government plans to issue a project notice on its B.C. Bid website in early June, before issuing formal requests for qualifications and proposals later this year.

The new museum is expected to include underground parking, a new Imax theatre, gift shop and café, a multi-purpose event space with catering kitchen, and a retail space operated by an Indigenous art co-operative.

dkloster@timescolonist.com