Political pressure may have compromised the duties of San Francisco building officials and led to the tilting and sinking Millennium Tower that is now the subject of a lawsuit, according to Supervisor Aaron Peskin
The swanky residential tower at 301 Mission St. has drawn national attention after reports last month that the 58-story building was sinking beyond expectations, prompting the homeowners association to take legal action. Since then, the circumstances surrounding the tower developed by Millennium Partners have come under scrutiny.
On Tuesday, Peskin pointed to the role the Department of Building Inspection played in the development.
“We are going to find out who knew what and when they knew it,” Peskin said during a news conference he called after reviewing some 1,600 city documents related to the Millennium Tower project dating back to 2001. He announced he will hold investigative hearings beginning next week at the Board of Supervisors Government Audits and Oversight Committee.
The documents, which Peskin obtained from NBC Bay Area reporter Jaxon Van Derbeken, were also independently obtained and reviewed by the San Francisco Examiner.
“I believe … that there was some level of political interference with the day-to-day duties of individuals” who are tasked with making sure buildings are safe “in this seismically prone area that we live in,” Peskin said. He added that they “were not allowed to do their job.”
PJ Johnston, a spokesperson for Millennium Partners, which owns the building, shot back at Peskin’s allegations.
“To suggest that Millennium Partners asked for or received any inappropriate treatment by city agencies, at any time in this process, is simply outrageous,” Johnston said.
Peskin identified those he is seeking to testify at the hearing, including then-acting director of the Department of Building Inspection Amy Lee, DBI’s principal engineer Hanson Tom, the project’s permit expeditor Patrick Otellini, who is now a city employee as the Chief Resilience Officer, DBI spokesperson William Strawn and DBI inspector Daniel Lowry.
Peskin said the City Attorney would issue subpoenas if they fail to appear.
Strawn said in an Aug. 15 text message to the Examiner that “our records show the building was built according to approved plans.”
The Transbay Joint Powers Authority, which is also being sued with Millennium Partners, by the Millennium Tower’s homeowners association, argues that the sinking and tilting is a design flaw caused by not having foundation piles driven into the bedrock, but instead using shorter less costly ones.
Peskin said he will examine if the design approvals “deviated from The City’s standard practices … to determine whether or not the developer and their consultants got it right.”
Millennium Partners blames Transbay for exacerbating the sinking by underground work.
The Transbay authority issued a statement Tuesday relating to its monitoring with Millennium Partners dating back to 2008. The agency said the “monitoring reports show that the Millennium Tower was tilting to the northwest, away from the Transbay Terminal, and had settled vertically approximately 10 inches before the TJPA started demolition or construction for the Transit Center in August 2010. This excessive movement is attributable to MP’s inadequate foundation, which does not reach bedrock.”
In his allegation of “political interference” Peskin pointed to documents that show questions about the building’s settlement were raised by a DBI deputy director Raymond Lui in February 2009. But seven months later, The City issued certificates of occupancy for the units.
“We knew or should have known at that time that the building was sinking,” Peskin said, adding that the some 400 condo purchasers “have arguably been defrauded.”
Peskin also pointed to other concerns, such as how Tom, one of DBI’s engineers, was raising numerous questions in 2006 but responses to them are not part of the record. Peskin also said many documents were missing and that, in sum, they raise more questions than answers.
“How we can be building buildings that are not meeting the best seismic standards is a profound question,” Peskin said.
Previous estimates expected the Millennium Tower to sink four to six inches, as all buildings settle to some degree. But the building has sunk some 16 inches, and the lawsuit alleges it could sink more than 30 inches over time.
Johnston said in a statement that all of the units were sold before any reports indicated the building had sunk more than “settled within the revised predicted, safe ranges.” He added that a safety study “determined the settlement has not significantly affected the seismic performance of the building, and does not represent a safety risk.”