Tilt­ing, sink­ing San Fran­cisco high-rise raises alarm

Malta Independent - - FEATURE -

Pamela But­tery no­ticed some­thing pe­cu­liar six years ago while prac­tic­ing golf putting in her 57th-floor apart­ment at the lux­u­ri­ous Mil­len­nium Tower. The ball kept veer­ing to the same cor­ner of her liv­ing room.

Those were the first signs for res­i­dents of the sleek, mir­rored high-rise that some­thing was wrong.

The 58-story build­ing has gained no­to­ri­ety in re­cent weeks as the “lean­ing tower of San Fran­cisco.” But it’s not just lean­ing. It’s sink­ing, too. And en­gi­neers hired to as­sess the prob­lem say it shows no im­me­di­ate sign of stop­ping.

“What con­cerns me most is the tilt­ing,” says But­tery, 76, a re­tired real es­tate de­vel­oper. “Is it safe to stay here? For how long?”

Com­pleted seven years ago, the tower so far has sunk 16 inches into the soft soil and land­fill of San Fran­cisco’s crowded fi­nan­cial dis­trict. But it’s not sink­ing evenly, which has cre­ated a 2inch tilt at the base — and a roughly 6-inch lean at the top.

By com­par­i­son, Italy’s famed Lean­ing Tower of Pisa is lean­ing more than 16 feet. But in a ma­jor earth­quake fault zone, the Mil­len­nium Tower’s struc­tural prob­lems have raised alarm and be­come the fo­cus of a pub­lic scan­dal.

Sev­eral doc­u­ments in­volv­ing the down­town build­ing were leaked in re­cent weeks, in­clud­ing ex­changes be­tween the city’s De­part­ment of Build­ing In­spec­tion and Mil­len­nium Part­ners, the de­vel­oper. They show both sides knew the build­ing was sink­ing more than an­tic­i­pated be­fore it opened in late 2009, but nei­ther made that in­for­ma­tion pub­lic.

In a Fe­bru­ary 2009 let­ter, a chief build­ings in­spec­tor, Ray­mond Lui, wrote to the tower’s en­gi­neer­ing firm to ex­press con­cerns about “larger than ex­pected set­tle­ments.” He asked what was be­ing done to stop the sink­ing and if the build­ing’s struc­tural safety could be affected.

DeSi­mone Con­sult­ing En­gi­neers replied that the build­ing had al­ready un­ex­pect­edly set­tled 8.3 inches. But the en­gi­neer­ing firm con­cluded, “It is our pro­fes­sional opin­ion that the struc­tures are safe.”

City Su­per­vi­sor Aaron Pe­skin, who has con­vened hear­ings on the mat­ter at City Hall, asked Lui why the build­ing was then cer­ti­fied safe for oc­cu­pancy.

“We felt they had it un­der con­trol,” replied Lui, now em­ployed in San Fran­cisco’s pub­lic works de­part­ment. He did not elab­o­rate. City of­fi­cials, own­ers of the build­ing’s high-end apart­ments, its de­vel­op­ers and politi­cians are ar­gu­ing over who is to blame. Mean­while, key ques­tions re­main.

“When is this build­ing go­ing to stop sink­ing?” asks Jerry Dod­son, an at­tor­ney and en­gi­neer who paid $2.1 mil­lion in 2009 for his two-bed­room apart­ment on the 42nd floor. “That’s some­thing that no one has been able to an­swer.”

On the side­walks out­side the Mil­len­nium Tower, en­gi­neers last month started work­ing to fig­ure out why the build­ing keeps sink­ing and if there’s a way to fix it. But the process, which in­volves drilling deep holes and test­ing soil sam­ples, is ex­pected to take sev­eral months.

The geotech­ni­cal en­gi­neer lead­ing the op­er­a­tion, Pat Shires, said ex­ist­ing data in­di­cates the tower “might” sink be­tween 24 to 31 inches in to­tal, but no­body knows for sure.

When the Mil­len­nium Tower opened, it be­came a haven for the city’s well-heeled, and all 419 apart­ments quickly sold out. Ten­ants have in­cluded for­mer San Fran­cisco 49er Joe Mon­tana, late ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist Tom Perkins and Gi­ants out­fielder Hunter Pence.

The build­ing has a 75-foot in­door lap-pool, a health club and spa, an in-house cin­ema, and a restau­rant and wine bar run by celebrity chef Michael Mina. Pent­houses have sold for more than $10 mil­lion.

The tower’s trou­bles are ap­par­ent in its five-floor un­der­ground garage, where Porsches and Lam­borgh­i­nis sit near walls bear­ing floor-to-ceil­ing cracks, many brack­eted by stress gauges to mea­sure growth.

Mean­while, ac­cu­sa­tions and law­suits are pil­ing up.

Dod­son and other res­i­dents blame de­vel­op­ers for what they say is a flawed de­sign. The tower’s foun­da­tion, for in­stance, uses piles driven 60 to 90 feet into land­fill, rather than the pricier op­tion of go­ing down at least 240 feet to bedrock.

Mil­len­nium Part­ners main­tains its de­sign is safe and says many San Fran­cisco high-rises have sim­i­lar foun­da­tions.

“We did this build­ing the right way,” Chris Jef­fries, a found­ing part­ner at Mil­len­nium Part­ners, told a news con­fer­ence. “The build­ing is 100 per­cent safe.”

Jef­fries blames the build­ing’s prob­lems on an ad­ja­cent con­struc­tion site where a city rail ter­mi­nal is be­ing built. He says the Trans­bay Joint Pow­ers Au­thor­ity, the pub­lic agency build­ing the $4.5 bil­lion tran­sit hub, dug a 60foot hole to cre­ate a dry con­struc­tion site and pumped out mil­lions of gal­lons of ground­wa­ter that wound up com­press­ing and weak­en­ing the soil un­der the Mil­len­nium Tower.

Trans­bay says the tower’s “in­ad­e­quate foun­da­tion is the sole cause of the ex­ces­sive set­tle­ment and tilt.” It re­leased a state­ment say­ing the build­ing had sunk 10 inches and started to lean be­fore the agency broke ground in 2010.

It has continued to sink at a rate of about 1 inch per year.

“We are all liv­ing there and won­der­ing about our safety,” an­other resident, Nina Agabian, said at a re­cent City Hall hear­ing. “We’ve been told it’s go­ing to take years to solve this, and I don’t think we have years.”

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