Millennium Tower awaits peer review as building inspectors face tough questions

San Francisco’s next step in the case of the sinking and leaning Millennium Tower is to assemble a peer review panel to examine the developer’s new engineering report that says the building is safe, though when that review will begin remains unclear.

Meanwhile, at the second public hearing at City Hall over the 301 Mission St. development Friday, Supervisor Aaron Peskin — who chairs the Board of Supervisors Government and Audit Committee — once again questioned Department of Building Inspection officials about the building.

The two hearings haven’t uncovered evidence of wrongdoing like political interference, but on Friday one former DBI official acknowledged the department should have done a better job once finding out in 2009 that the building was sinking beyond the initial projections.

Residents of the residential building continue to demand swift action and have sued the developer Millennium Partners after it was revealed in August that the 58-story building has sunk and tilted beyond expectations. They argue the building design is flawed by not using longer pilings to reach the bedrock.

One resident said Friday that when he places a marble on the floor of his condo on the 50th story, it rolls toward the building’s northwestern tilt.

On Thursday, a day before the committee hearing, DBI Director Tom Hui sent a six-page letter to Angus McCarthy, chair of the Building Inspection Commission, and the Board of Supervisors outlining his version of events related to the development and the next steps.

Also Thursday, DBI issued two notices of violation related to unpermitted work on building features impacted by the building’s sinking, specifically regarding pedestrian ramps that now slope at higher angles than allowed under the ADA code.

But when it comes to determining the building safety and stabilization measures, if needed, DBI says they are waiting for The City’s peer review of the developer’s engineer report done by Ronald Hamburger, which was issued earlier this month. Millennium Partners blames the increased sinking on work done nearby by the Transbay Joint Powers Authority.

Will Strawn, a DBI spokesperson, said the timing of the review will “depend entirely on getting the peer review panel empaneled.”

“I don’t know if we are looking at another two weeks or four weeks,” Strawn said.

Peskin cast doubt on Hamburger’s October report by highlighting how its findings contradict a 2014 draft report also done by Hamburger. That 2014 draft report warned of foundation damage in the event of a lower intensity earthquake due to the increased settling, but that language is not in the 2016 report.

“It looks like it’s been extremely lawyered,” Peskin said of the report, “which I hope gives you all some amount of concern.”

“The 2014 report clearly makes some recommendations as to actions that could be undertaken by Millennium to stabilize the building,” Peskin said. “All of that is scrubbed out of the 2016 final foundation settlement investigation.”

Hui told the committee that he was taking the necessary steps to address the issue. “I want to make sure their building is safe. That’s my job, my duty to make sure of that,” Hui said.

Peskin has been critical of the department’s response to the sinking and also to the most recent notice of violations Thursday that were issued only after DBI received a complaint, even though DBI was previously aware of the violations during a prior site visit.

“There seems to be this culture that if you don’t get a complaint you will do absolutely nothing,” Peskin said. “What’s the matter with the culture of a department that’s in charge of building safety that does not affirmatively look out for things like this?”

Raymond Lui is the former DBI deputy director who wrote a letter in February 2009 raising questions about tower’s sinking. Despite those concerns — officials at the hearing indicated the developer and others knew at the time the building had sunk 8.3 inches — DBI certified the building for occupancy in August 2009. The building was initially expected to sink between four and six inches, but has sunk as much as 16 inches.

Lui said there were monitoring reports on the settling by the developer and the TJPA around 2010, but DBI didn’t get involved.

“You’re right. We did not follow up on those,” Lui said. “As a former deputy director I think in retrospect that would have been a good idea.”

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