San Francisco’s leaning tower of lawsuits

The Millennium Tower opened to great acclaim with high-priced, posh apartments. But those accolades and property values are sinking, along with the building’s foundation

It’s a story as old as cities themselves: prosperity comes to town and triggers a building boom. In modern San Francisco, rows of skyscrapers have begun lining the downtown streets and recasting the skyline, monuments to the triumph of the tech sector. Leading this wave, the Millennium Tower. 58 stories of opulence, it opened in 2009 to great acclaim, then the tallest residential building west of the Mississippi. Though priced in the millions, the inventory of posh apartments moved quickly. Yet for all its curb appeal, the building has, quite literally, one foundational problem: it’s sinking into mud and tilting toward its neighbors. Engineering doesn’t often make for rollicking mystery but San Francisco is captivated by the tale of the leaning tower and the lawsuits it’s spawned. As we first reported this past fall, it’s a story positioned — albeit at an angle — somewhere between civic scandal and civic curiosity, an illustration of what can happen when zeal for development overtakes common sense.

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Millennium Tower CBS NEWS

When the fog rolls in over San Francisco, the skyscrapers live up to the name. The TransAmerica Pyramid, long the gem of this skyline, now dwarfed, quaint as a cable car. The new Salesforce Tower stands as the tallest building in town. Nearby, Facebook signed a record-breaking lease on this building. And across the way, the Millennium Tower at 301 Mission Street: 645 feet of reinforced concrete wrapped in glass. Inside the $550 million construction, as advertised, lavish condominiums flush with amenities, attracting tech barons and venture capitalists. San Francisco royalty, former 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, bought here.

So did Jerry and Pat Dodson. Ten years ago, they paid $2.1 million dollars for a two-bedroom and planned to live out their retirement enjoying the sweeping view from the 42nd floor.

Pat Dodson: It’s a wonderful location… Everything I had read indicated that it was the best building in San Francisco. It had won numerous awards. It had particularly won awards for construction, which was very important if you’re thinking of moving into a high rise.

Jon Wertheim: Initially no buyer’s remorse?

Pat Dodson: Absolutely not.

Jerry Dodson: No, not at all. I mean, in fact, buyer euphoria.

One feature the Dodson’s hadn’t counted on is the dozens of stress gauges dot the walls of the Millennium Tower’s basement. They measure, in millimeters, the slow growth of cracks along the columns that rise up from the building’s foundation.

Jerry Dodson: There’s enough of them, a spider web of cracks, that you have to be concerned about what’s going on underneath.

These cracks are one of the only visual clues that there’s anything profoundly wrong here.

Jon Wertheim: These are the rounds you do now?

Jerry Dodson: Yeah, I’ve been told by structural and geotechnical engineers that I should be watching …

Both an engineer and a lawyer, Dodson makes daily rounds of the basement looking for signs of deterioration. It’s a routine he’s kept since the homeowner’s association called a meeting of residents in May of 2016.

Pat Dodson: They just said we should be there and made us sign in, which alerted us at that time that there was something serious.

Jon Wertheim: So what was the nature of that meeting?

Pat Dodson: It was the first time we were told that the building was sinking and was tilting.

Engineers have tracked sinking here since the day the foundation was poured in 2006. Nothing unusual about that. Here’s what is unusual: their data shows the Millennium Tower sinking — 17 inches so far — and tilting 14 inches to the northwest.

Once news got out, local politicians seized on the story. And the very engineers celebrated for the building’s design suddenly were being compelled to explain why the building was moving.

“Nobody has owned up to why this building is not performing.”

When the Millennium hearings opened to public comment, it brought some livelier moments. This, after all, being San Francisco — a city once described as 49 square miles surrounded by reality. Aaron Peskin has a certain vitality himself. A long time city supervisor, he starts most days with a swim in the Bay then meets constituents at a North Beach coffee shop, where the Millennium Tower is a popular topic. Peskin is leading hearings into what is causing the trouble.

Jon Wertheim: You subpoenaed some of the engineers involved with Millennium Tower. Why?

Aaron Peskin: We don’t generally like to subpoena people. That power has not been used by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for some quarter of a century.

Jon Wertheim: 25 years, you’ve never issued a subpoena before?

Aaron Peskin: That’s correct.

Jon Wertheim: When you got them in here, what did you learn?

Aaron Peskin: Their answers were less than satisfactory. Nobody has owned up to why this building is not performing.

Some homeowners aren’t waiting around to find out. Andrew Faulk and Frank Jernigan — who worked at Google when it was still a start-up — got all the answers they needed when they rolled a marble across their floor.

Frank Jernigan: We didn’t do it but once, and this is what we got. We were shocked when that thing stopped, turned around and started rolling back.

Andrew Faulk: Back to where the building is tilting.

Jon Wertheim: The northwest side.

Frank Jernigan: I thought, “We don’t know if this building’s going to stand up in an earthquake.” And so I became severely frightened of that.

Andrew Faulk: And we got out. We left, we left really most all of our belongings. We just left.

The couple sold their apartment last year and moved to a two-story home in the Pacific Heights neighborhood.

Frank Jernigan: We sold it for approximately half of what it was valued at before this news came to light.

Jon Wertheim: You lost seven figures —

Frank Jernigan: Yes.

Jon Wertheim: On the sale of this apartment?

Frank Jernigan: Yes.

Andrew Faulk: That’s right.

Frank Jernigan: I would say we lost $3-$4 million.

Speaking of astronomical figures, half a world away, in a suburb of Amsterdam, San Francisco’s sinking tower came across the radar of Petar Marinkovic, an engineer who works with the European Space Agency to track earthquakes. Using signals from a satellite 500 miles above the earth, Marinkovic measures ground movements around fault lines. In 2016, he happened to be studying the Bay Area, when something caught his eye.

Jon Wertheim: This is obviously downtown San Francisco. What do the green dots represent?

Petar Marinkovic: Green dots represent stable. No displacement, no significant displacement.

Jon Wertheim: Stable structures?

Petar Marinkovic: Stable structures, yeah.

Jon Wertheim: And the red dots?

Petar Marinkovic: Few red dots means something’s going down. Something’s settling. Something’s subsiding. Something’s sinking.

Jon Wertheim: Did you know what it was?

Petar Marinkovic: No.

Jon Wertheim: Had you heard of Millennium Tower before this?

Petar Marinkovic: No.

Jon Wertheim: Ever been to San Francisco?

Petar Marinkovic: No.

Jon Wertheim: What can you tell us about the rate of sinking?

Petar Marinkovic: It’s in the ballpark of – between 1.5 to 2 inches a year.

Jon Wertheim: 1.5 to 2 inches a year?

Petar Marinkovic: Yeah, yeah.

And there’s nothing to suggest the sinking and tilting are slowing down, much less stopping. But is it dangerous? Last summer, the city of San Francisco and its engineers asserted the building is safe, even in the event of an earthquake. Even so — and this is a central theme to this saga: there are as many opinions about the trouble at the Millennium Tower as there are engineers in the Bay Area.

Jerry Cauthen, one of those local engineers, did not work on the tower but has worked on nearby projects.

Jerry Cauthen: There’s a lot of things about this building that are unprecedented.

Jon Wertheim: Some sinking for buildings is acceptable, right?

Jerry Cauthen: Some is. They actually anticipated that, over the lift of the building, it would sink about four to five inches. That’s like a hundred-year life.

Jon Wertheim: This is double and triple that.

Jerry Cauthen: Yeah. I don’t think they — they obviously didn’t anticipate anything like this, close to it.

By ‘they’ Cauthen means Millennium Partners — brand-name developers with high-end skyscrapers all over the country. Cauthen says their big mistake was building Millennium Tower out of concrete instead of steel.

Jerry Cauthen: Concrete is often cheaper. And it’s just as good, but it is a lot heavier. And so you got to design your foundation and your sub-surface to support that higher weight.

What lies beneath the surface at 301 Mission Street is critical to the story. It fell to Millennium’s geotechnical engineers to analyze the ground below and design an appropriate foundation. They went with a foundation driven 80 feet deep into a layer of dense sand. And the city approved the plan. Larry Karp is a local geotechnical engineer. He did not work on the tower either but specializes in Bay Area soil conditions.

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