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San Francisco's leaning tower of lawsuits

Source:, January 21, 2018
By: Jon Wertheim

The Millennium Tower opened to great acclaim with high-priced, posh apartments. But those accolades and property values are sinking, along with the building’s foundation

It’s a story as old as cities themselves: prosperity comes to town and triggers a building boom. In modern San Francisco, rows of skyscrapers have begun lining the downtown streets and recasting the skyline, monuments to the triumph of the tech sector. Leading this wave, the Millennium Tower. Fifty-eight stories of opulence, it opened in 2009 to great acclaim, then the tallest residential building west of the Mississippi. Though priced in the millions, the inventory of posh apartments moved quickly. Yet for all its curb appeal, the building has, quite literally, one fundamental problem: it’s sinking into mud and tilting toward its neighbors. Engineering doesn’t often make for rollicking mystery but San Francisco is captivated by the tale of the leaning tower and the lawsuits it’s spawned. As we first reported this past fall, it’s a story positioned — albeit at an angle — somewhere between civic scandal and civic curiosity, an illustration of what can happen when zeal for development overtakes common sense.

Millennium Tower

When the fog rolls in over San Francisco, the skyscrapers live up to the name. The TransAmerica Pyramid, long the gem of this skyline, now dwarfed, quaint as a cable car. The new Salesforce Tower stands as the tallest building in town. Nearby, Facebook just took out the city’s largest lease on this building. And across the way, the Millennium Tower at 301 Mission Street: 645 feet of reinforced concrete wrapped in glass. Inside the $550 million construction, as advertised, lavish condominiums flush with amenities, attracting tech barons and venture capitalists. San Francisco royalty, former 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, bought here.
So did Jerry and Pat Dodson. Eight years ago, they paid $2.1 million dollars for a two-bedroom and planned to live out their retirement enjoying the sweeping view from the 42nd floor.
Pat Dodson: It’s a wonderful location… Everything I had read indicated that it was the best building in San Francisco. It had won numerous awards. It had particularly won awards for construction, which was very important if you’re thinking of moving into a high rise.
Jon Wertheim: Initially no buyer’s remorse?
Pat Dodson: Absolutely not.
Jerry Dodson: No, not at all. I mean, in fact, buyer euphoria.
One feature the Dodson’s hadn’t counted on is the dozens of stress gauges dot the walls of the Millennium Tower’s basement. They measure, in millimeters, the slow growth of cracks along the columns that rise up from the building’s foundation.

Jerry Dodson shows contributor Jon Wertheim stress gauges in the Millennium Tower

Jerry Dodson: There’s enough of them, a spider web of cracks, that you have to be concerned about what’s going on underneath.
These cracks are one of the only visual clues that there’s anything profoundly wrong here.
Jon Wertheim: These are the rounds you do now?
Jerry Dodson: Yeah, I’ve been told by structural and geotechnical engineers that I should be watching…
Both an engineer and a lawyer, Dodson makes daily rounds of the basement looking for signs of deterioration. It’s a routine he’s kept since the homeowner’s association called a meeting of residents in May of 2016.
Pat Dodson: They just said we should be there and made us sign in, which alerted us at that time that there was something serious.
Jon Wertheim: So what was the nature of that meeting?
Pat Dodson: It was the first time we were told that the building was sinking and was tilting.
Engineers have tracked sinking here since the day the foundation was poured in 2006. Nothing unusual about that. Here’s what is unusual: their data shows the Millennium Tower sinking — 17 inches so far — and tilting 14 inches to the northwest.
Once news got out, local politicians seized on the story. And the very engineers celebrated for the building’s design suddenly were being compelled to explain why the building was moving.

When the Millennium hearings opened to public comment, it brought some livelier moments. This, after all, being San Francisco — a city once described as 49 square miles surrounded by reality. Aaron Peskin has a certain vitality himself. A long time city supervisor, he starts most days with a swim in the Bay then meets constituents at a North Beach coffee shop, where the Millennium Tower is a popular topic. Peskin is leading hearings into what is causing the trouble.

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