No Answers on Why Giant High-Rise Is Sinking

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — City building inspectors had few satisfactory answers Thursday for San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who grilled them about how they could allow construction of a glitzy, 58-story high-rise to move forward despite knowing it was sinking at an alarming rate.
     “There is a question that the city and the developer knew as much as six years ago that the building was sinking much more than anticipated, and I am interested in getting to the bottom of why the city didn’t disclose that to the public or to the over 400 individuals, families and entities that purchased units in the building,” Peskin said at special meeting of the Board of Supervisors Government Audit and Oversight Committee.
     Peskin cited a letter the Department of Building Inspection sent in February 2009 to its developer, Millennium Partners, expressing concern about the $175 million, 420-unit structure.
     “It is our understanding that there have been larger-than-expected settlements of the high-rise and mid-rise buildings located at 301 Mission St. in San Francisco,” the letter said. “These settlements, as such, have created concerns for us regarding the impact of the design requirements of these buildings.”
     “Settlement” here does not refer to lawsuits; it refers to what building residents call “an alarming 15-inch tilt at the top of the building” due to settling of the foundation. Resident John Eng was lead plaintiff in a class action complaint against the developers and the Transbay Joint Powers Authority in August this year.
     That superior court lawsuit blamed the Joint Powers Authority for contributing to the problem “by digging the biggest hole the city has ever seen in its construction of the Transbay Transit Center next door to the Millennium.”
     On Thursday, Department of Building Inspection Assistant Director Ron Tom told supervisors his department inspected the building site regularly from January 2006 through August 2009, and found no signs of settling.
     “Our staff didn’t see anything obvious to them that would alert them there was a problem,” Tom said.
     Department engineer Raymond Lui, who wrote the 2009 letter, told Peskin he “can only speculate” about how he found out about the building’s structural deficiencies, and couldn’t remember what happened after the letter was sent.
     The San Francisco Chronicle broke the news in August that the tallest residential building in the city has sunk 16 inches and tilted at least 2 inches to the northwest since it was completed in 2008.
     In his class action, Eng says the Millennium is continuing to settle at a rate of an inch per year, and could tilt farther as it does.
     Peskin said he was blown away that despite the Chronicle article and the class action, it took an anonymous tipster calling the city’s 311 hotline to get the attention of city building inspectors.
     “It kind of blows my mind that you have to call 311 in order to have the city come out and deal with a 58-story concrete building that is tilting,” Peskin said.
     He said the department received an investigative report on the issue back in 2014, but did nothing.
     Two and a half weeks after recent the 311 call, inspectors visited the building, on Aug. 19.
     On Aug. 26, the department issued a “corrective action” — Peskin called it a “few scribbles on a piece of paper.”
     “What does it take to get you guys to take something seriously that could be a life-safety hazard?” Peskin asked Tom.
     To replied: “We have never faced this before and what protocols we have now will be different than before.”
     He added: “Certainly, the one of the good things that should come out of this hearing is that we have examined our protocols.”
     Tom said it’s not his department’s job to investigate buildings on a regular basis: Its primary charge is to issue permits and conduct inspections as the buildings go up.
     “Just in general we are not monitoring the behavior and the safety of every building in San Francisco,” he said.
     Peskin later asked Hansen Tom, a structural engineer with the department for 29 years, to “hazard a guess” why the building sank, speculating that perhaps the building was just too heavy for its foundation.
     “We shouldn’t comment too much on what is the cause of the failure of the building that causes it to settle,” Tom said.
     Attorney Denis Shanagher, with Duane Morris, who represents the Millennium condo owners, said his clients never received any disclosures about the sinking when they bought their units, and that the homeowner’s association’s requests to meet with department officials have been repeatedly rebuffed.
     Condo owner Nina Agabian was at the hearing Thursday. “We are all living there and wondering really about our safety, and clearly nothing that we’ve heard today has instilled confidence,” she said.

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