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SF building inspectors may have known of Millennium Tower issues since 2009

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Building inspectors in San Francisco reportedly waited weeks — if not years — to take action after initial news reports claimed the Millennium Tower on Mission Street was sinking and tilting. (Wesaam Al-Badry/ Special to S.F. Examiner)
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San Francisco’s building inspectors may have only leapt into action last month on the 58-story sinking and tilting Millennium Tower following an anonymous 311 complaint from someone who learned about it from the media weeks earlier.

The Department of Building Inspection’s most recent response to the development at 301 Mission St. is part of a long history that has come under scrutiny by city officials. It has also drawn the attention of seismic safety experts, downtown residents and Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

As far back 2009, there was a “buzz” within the Department of Building Inspection that the Millennium Tower was sinking more than forecasted, according to a DBI official who testified Thursday during a Board of Supervisors Government Audit and Oversight Committee hearing called by Supervisor Aaron Peskin.

Peskin has vowed to unearth who is responsible for the sinking Millennium Tower at 301 Mission St. through a series of hearings before the committee, the first of which was held Thursday.

Raymond Lui, a former DBI deputy director, was called to testify at the hearing because he wrote a letter in February 2009 raising questions about tower’s sinking. The letter was recently released through public records requests. Despite those concerns, DBI certified the building for occupancy in August 2009.

“I do not recall exactly what precipitated my writing of that letter,” Lui told the committee Thursday. He remembered receiving some information about the settling of the building, speculating the information was from local engineers with whom he was “tight.”

Lui, who now works for the Department of Public Works, did recall a response from Millennium Partners’ development team, which reportedly confirmed the tower had sunk more than anticipated, but “with the response that we received from the engineer of record, we felt that they had it under control,” Lui said.

Peskin says The City should have alerted the public and condo owners in 2009 that the building had sunk beyond forecasts. City Attorney Dennis Herrera is also investigating the issue and this week subpoenaed the developer to determine if state tenant disclosure laws were violated.

The Millennium Tower was expected to sink between four and six inches, but has sunk as much as 16 inches and tilted. It may sink another 31 inches, according to a lawsuit filed by the Millennium Homeowners Association.

Peskin questioned why The City would only rely on a developer’s chosen third-party analysis to satisfy concerns.

But DBI officials on Thursday said that the past practice of only relying on a developer’s paid-for engineers and consultants is not going to continue.

“We are not going to be only dependent on these letters of confirmation from the owner’s design professionals, but we are going to develop a method of checks and balances that goes beyond our own department’s expertise,” said Ron Tom, assistant director of DBI.

Tom emphasized that “this was one of the first tall, heavy buildings.”

The hearing also focused on The City’s recent official response to the sinking tower, which has prompted the Millennium Tower Association, the condo owners, to sue the developers. The association plans to install a monitoring system on the building on Monday to collect its own settlement data.

Tom said DBI investigated the building only after receiving an anonymous complaint through The City’s 311 complaint line. The caller was not a resident of the building, Tom said.

That call, Peskin said, was made Aug. 16 — some 15 days after the first media report about the Millennium Tower sinking beyond forecasted. A senior building inspector was sent out on Aug. 19, and a “corrective notice” was issued on Aug. 26. The notice required the building owner to hire a design team to analyze the building and the findings are due at the end of the month, Tom said.

Later in the hearing, Building Inspection Director Tom Hui said that “we did send someone out there even before the 311 [call].”

But Peskin called Hui’s assertion “troubling” since it was the first time it was mentioned during the hearing and there “there is no written evidence in the record” of such action.

The developer blames the sinking on the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, which oversees the area. But the Transbay authority blames the building’s faulty design.

Hours after Thursday’s hearing, Mayor Ed Lee issued a statement. “I have been informed by the Department of Building Inspection (DBI) that 301 Mission is safe,” Lee said. “They are awaiting a final report from the developer about foundation settlement at 301 Mission. Once the report is received, DBI will take any actions needed to ensure this building remains safe.”

Lee added, “I also requested DBI to immediately review failure mitigation measures for buildings in geographically hazardous areas.”

Peskin has vowed to hold another hearing within a month.

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