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Holes, broken concrete, leaks. This DC garage was at risk of collapse. But, residents still use it every day

County and District building inspectors rely on resident complaints to catch building problems. Here's how it works.

WASHINGTON — After the Surfside condo building collapse, people posted on local Reddit pages concerned the same could happen to their apartment or condo.

WUSA9 started to get names of buildings people were concerned about, went and looked at them ourselves. We started with Columbia Plaza on Virginia Avenue in Northwest D.C.-- next to the Watergate.

On top, Columbia Plaza has apartments and stores. Down below, in the public parking garage often used by Kennedy Center visitors. It didn’t take long for us to spot holes in the concrete ceiling, chunks of concrete broken off, some tar-like substance leaking from above, and exposed rebar.

Credit: Haleigh Purvis
A ceiling hole in the underground garage at Columbia Plaza in NW Washington.

When asked how she felt parking at Columbia Plaza, resident Gretchen Sparrow replied, “Terrified. It is scary. Just everything that happened. The year that this building was built [1968], it’s exposed. There’s a lot of things that you drive over. Concrete, holes, looking up, water. So yeah, it’s terrifying."

WUSA9 alerted D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs about these apparent dangers which said it would send an inspector, same as if a resident complained to the agency. However, we learned from this example, the inspection results that come from resident complaints can take months to finally be posted on DCRA’s website.

Credit: Haleigh Purvis
Outside Columbia Plaza apartment towers

When we did get the results showing the building owners were fined $1,059 for structural problems, one phrase caught our eye, “Failure to maintain a structural member free from deterioration or so that it is capable of safely supporting the imposed dead and live loads.” In laymen’s terms, according to independent inspectors, it means there were parts of the garage that may not have been able to support the weight above it, putting it at risk of collapse.

“They actually replaced the existing three beams here with two other beams bolted to either side through," explained Columbia Plaza building manager, Ollie Gilmer.

Credit: Haleigh Purvis
Columbia Plaza building manager Ollie Gilmer

WUSA9 took a tour with Columbia Plaza’s building manager who showed us the repairs underway as a result of the inspection we called for.

When asked how long repairs are estimated to take, Gilmer responded, “Probably more than a month. Just getting materials in has been an issue. The steel here we had to get from Pennsylvania and it took a week and a half.”

Residents of one Crystal City apartment building alerted us about what looked to them as a wall in poor condition inside the underground garage, so we checked it out as well.

Credit: Haleigh Purvis
WUSA9 inspects a wall at a Crystal City apartment tower underground garage

After spotting the wall residents were talking about, we alerted Arlington County’s Building department. The next day, their inspectors came, and while they said the wall looked in poor condition, it’s not a load-bearing wall, so it doesn’t create any danger of building collapse.

If you live or work in a high rise, what should you be on the lookout for? We reached out to building inspectors and the answer is not simple.

Sagging steel beams can be a red flag. Even things that look bad, like chunks of concrete falling off don’t necessarily mean increased collapse danger. They add signs of stress on the steel or damage to concrete invisible to all but professional inspectors can be the most dangerous.

Local agencies with not enough inspectors available for constant and regular inspections rely on the public’s building complaints about those crucial first alerts. If you see something, they need you to say something.

D.C. residents: click here.

Arlington residents: click here.

Fairfax residents: click here.

Alexandria residents: click here.

Prince George's residents: click here.

Montgomery residents: click here.

Residents of other counties should seek out their local building or code enforcement departments.

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