Pacifica upholds yellow tagging of cliffside apartments

The latest chapter in the saga of Pacifica’s endangered cliffside apartment buildings could be drawing to a close.

The city’s Emergency Preparedness and Safety Commission voted unanimously on Wednesday to uphold the yellow tagging of an apartment building at 310 Esplanade Ave., rejecting an appeal filed by the owner and some tenants.

City officials ordered residents to evacuate the 20-unit apartment building in late January, saying erosion of the cliff the building is perched on has created an unsafe situation. The building is now uninhabited, and its yellow-tag status means the owner and residents may only enter to retrieve belongings.

Also in late January, a drone pilot captured dramatic footage of parts of the cliff under Esplanade Avenue falling more than 100 feet into the sea. The footage was picked up by international news outlets, which used it to illustrate the precarious situation the apartment dwellers were forced to leave.

In 2010, two neighboring apartment buildings — 320 and 330 Esplanade Ave. — were evacuated, red-tagged and deemed uninhabitable. In February, 330 Esplanade was demolished at the owner’s expense.

Last week, 320 Esplanade was demolished. But because owner Millard Tong filed for bankruptcy about a year ago, Pacifica was forced to pay for the demolition and hazardous materials abatement. The city is participating in Tong’s bankruptcy case, hoping to recover some of the costs.

Tong, who also owns 310 Esplanade, spoke with the San Francisco Examiner prior to Wednesday’s verdict. He explained the tenants who had joined him in appealing the evacuation order wanted to move back into the building.

Tong said any suggestion that 310 Esplanade is in imminent danger of collapse is “speculation with no scientific basis.”

Tong claimed that unlike the cliffs under the neighboring buildings, the land beneath 310 Esplanade has shown no signs of instability. However, the landlord acknowledged even in a best-case scenario, the building’s days might be numbered.

“The cliff will probably fail in years to come,” Tong said. “But at this point there’s no failure, so why shut the building down?”

Pacifica City Manager Lorie Tinfow noted the owners of Land’s End and The Bluffs, nearby apartment complexes, invested in reinforcing the cliffs under their properties. Tinfow took Tong to task for not similarly shoring up the cliffs under his buildings.

“Mr. Tong had every opportunity to mitigate this,” Tinfow said. “Yet he chose not only to ignore the rapid deterioration of the bluffs beneath his property, but to also risk the public’s health and safety.

Bart Willoughby, a tenant at 310 Esplanade, disagrees. He claims Tong had 6,000 tons of rocks added to the beach in front of the cliff in 2009, and added another 4,000 tons in 2012.

“For somebody to say he never did anything is foolishness,” Willoughby said, adding that Land’s End and The Bluffs are both corporate-owned and could therefore build sea walls — something Tong could not afford.

Pacifica officials don’t share Tong’s confidence in the building’s near-term prospects. Ted Sayre, a geotechnical engineer hired to conduct an independent assessment, said the cliff is unstable and unsafe to live on.

“The current combination of over-steepened bluffs combined with the ongoing El Niño storm season results in a high level of risk to certain living space areas on the property,” Sayre wrote in a Feb. 17 analysis for the city. “Because of this high risk for over-stressing of patios, balconies and foundations, we have recommended that public access be severely restricted.”

Pacifica spokeswoman Alex Doniach said the Emergency Preparedness and Safety Commission is expected to certify its decision April 20, but she noted it would be premature to speculate about whether or when the building might be demolished.

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