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Future of Millennium Tower’s earthquake safety remains unknown

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The Millennium Tower, completed in 2009, has sunk 17 inches, leading some to question the seismic safety of the building. (Wesaam Al-Badry/2016 Special to S.F. Examiner)
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Millennium Tower tenants and city supervisors were not satisfied on Tuesday with the breadth of a recent engineering report that found the sinking high-rise could currently withstand an 8.0 earthquake.

Though the Millennium Tower is sinking by an inch a year on average, three city-contracted engineers stopped short of looking into the future and instead studied whether the behemoth could survive a major earthquake having settled 17 inches as of July.

“What I get out of this report, and it is somewhat comforting, is that it’s not about to fall over,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin. “What is absolutely missing, and what the report specifically says, is that we are not looking into the future.”

Peskin called for an emergency hearing at the Board of Supervisors Government Audit and Oversight Committee on Tuesday on the report that City Administrator Naomi Kelly released the day prior.

At the hearing, Stanford professor Gregory Deierlein explained that he and two other structural engineers studied two models of the Millennium Tower during a major earthquake: one with the building having settled 17 inches, the other without it settling more than anticipated.

“The settlement itself hasn’t affected the ability of the building to withstand a large earthquake,” Deierlein said, while noting that the top of the high-rise would drift about six feet during a major temblor. “That’s not unusual at all for these tall buildings.”

Deierlein said they considered projecting a year that The City should hit a “panic button” in terms of the Millennium Tower tipping during an earthquake, but “we didn’t feel comfortable pushing the models quite that far.”

The hearing on Tuesday also revealed that the Department of Building Inspection and City Administrator’s Office have not received any information about how the building owners plan to stop the building’s settling.

“We have not seen any documentation as to what the fix is from Millennium Partners or the Homeowners Association,” Kelly said. “We are eagerly awaiting the fix from them.”

The seismic study raised a red flag for at least one Millennium Tower tenant because it relied on previous studies that were commissioned by the developer.

Tenant Pat Dodson said she still has questions about the extent of damage that the building would suffer during an earthquake.

“I have real questions having read Mr. Deierlein’s report since it was based on work that they did not do originally,” Dodson said. “We need to know the truth about the building.”Millennium Partners is currently facing various lawsuits from tenants alleging that the developer is on the hook for repairs.

Meanwhile, attorney David Casselman, who said he is representing 250 Millennium Tower condo owners, blamed the Transbay Joint Powers Authority for causing the tower to sink during construction of the Transbay Transit Center.

“There is no building that is more adjacent to the Transit Center project than the Millennium,” Casselman said.

Board of Supervisors President London Breed called for an analysis of other downtown high-rises.

“I’m still not comfortable with where we are at this point,” Breed said. “At this point, with the extent of what’s happening, we should be farther along than we currently are.”

The City Administrator’s Office is hiring a contractor to examine the seismic stability of high-rises in San Francisco over the next year, Kelly said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the top of the building would drift six inches rather than six feet during a major earthquake.

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