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‘Massive’ security concerns surround vacant space

With Vancouver business burglaries at a 10-year high, protecting commercial real estate forced vacant by the pandemic requires 'boots on the ground'
Rod Fram of Transpacific Realty Advisors: | Chung Chow

Metro Vancouver has more than four million square feet of vacant office space. Calgary has 12 million square feet of empty offices downtown alone – including entire towers – part of literally acres of offices, shopping centre and street-front retail space vacant across Western Canada since COVID-19 began.

Yet every commercial space sitting empty must be protected, preserved and ready for the post-pandemic reopening, whenever that arrives.

The first line of defence is making sure there is no water ingress and that the heating and rest of the HVAC systems keep operating, said Jim Mandeville, senior project manager, large loss, at Toronto-based FirstOnSite Restoration, which has offices across western Canada.

“Businesses are faced with a unique challenge this winter: hibernating commercial facilities left vacant and unattended,” Mandevillle said. “This is a problem business and property managers have never faced on this scale before.”

Due to COVID-19, many businesses are shuttered and workers are under stay-at-home orders, which leaves commercial space vulnerable.

“There is a critical need to make sure exterior pipes are drained and winterized to avoid frozen pipes, monitor plumbing issues, check insulation, inspect roof spaces and clear debris,” Mandeville noted. He added that this, ideally, means that someone trained in mechanical systems takes a regular tour of vacant premises to spot a problem before it results in expensive damage.

For instance, a water leak that could impact all space below it. A single broken window in a mixed-use development could affect the building’s entire HVAC system.

Break-ins, vandalism

But Mandeville added there is another danger for owners and tenants who have been forced to leave commercial space empty.

“Security is a huge concern right across the country,” he said, noting that break-ins, squatters, vandalism and graffiti have all increased during the pandemic.

Vancouver Police Department data shows 966 break-ins were reported in the city’s central business district in 2020, up 21 per cent from 2019.  Across the city, business burglaries hit a 10-year high of 2,789 last year. 

Mark Forward, vice-president, property management division, for Paladin Security, Vancouver’s largest security agency, said there was a sharp spike in downtown break-ins at the start of the pandemic, including thefts from shuttered retail outlets.

Forward said many businesses have since been “hardening the premises” with locks, hoarding, improved lighting, alarms, surveillance cameras and stepped-up security patrols. This, along with colder weather, has reduced break-ins, though vandalism and squatters remains a concern.

Forward said many property owners use remote monitoring, such as closed-circuit surveillance cameras, which he said can also be used to detect fires or flooding.

Rod Fram, president of Burnaby, B.C.-based Transpacific Realty Advisors, a property management firm, said he prefers “boots on the ground” security to keep vacant space safe. Fram, whose company primarily manages suburban properties, said security is not just a downtown problem.

“Even if you have a half-full building, you have vagrants showing up, sleeping in the entrance ways, discarding needles, dumping stuff on the property. Security is a massive problem.”

Fram said a recent tour of 30 commercial sites in the Fraser Valley, a mix of office and industrial properties, found most were operating with a skeleton staff. “Pretty well every single building had the front doors locked and you had to be buzzed in.” Other sites were completely devoid of people.

But it is vital to give the impression that a site is being monitored, Fram warned.

“Once people think a building isn’t being watched is when bad things happen,” he said.

He advises property owners to increase the number of visible, random foot patrols. Some retailers with valuable inventory, such as drugs or high-end fashions, have barred windows and use barriers to stop thieves from crashing vehicles through windows. One of his clients, a jeweller, has installed smoke machines that flood the space with an impenetrable fog to deter thieves.

Fram added that any property owner leaving space vacant must notify their insurance company and provide evidence that the property is being protected. “You can actually void your property insurance if you don’t take the necessary steps to secure it while it is vacant,” he said.