San Francisco’s Millennium Tower is the tallest residential building in the city. Completed in 2009, the tower promised exceedingly exclusive living spaces to the super rich. It is often called a symbol of the booming tech industry, and of the development explosion that San Francisco continues to experience. However, there are two, very alarming problems with the Millennium Tower. The first: it’s sinking, at a rate 1.5-2 inches a year. The second: it’s leaning to the northwest, offset by 14 inches from its original position. This has led to a third problem: construction lawsuits, leveled at all parties potentially involved in this oversight.
A tall problem to tackle
A recent episode of 60 Minutes gave outsiders a new perspective on this modern-day leaning tower of a story. In short, it is a complex tale that dabbles in local politics, economics, and the various facets of modern skyscraper construction and contracting. Since opening in April 2009, the tower has sunk 17 inches. Walking through the basement and the car garage reveals a “spider web” of cracks spreading along the concrete pillars and walls. These cracks are spreading every year, marked with stress gauges that measure increases.
The construction lawsuits are coming from multiple sources, aimed at multiple targets. Pat and Jerry Dodson are two residents of the Millennium Tower who are leading others in the building in a lawsuit leveled at the tower. The designers, construction companies, even the city itself are in the cross-hairs. They are one among dozens of groups with a stake in this 645-foot-tall mess. The couple spent over $2 million on their own condo; other locations within the tower are valued over $10 million.
The ultimate problem, according to a Jerry Dodson quote from 2016, is that the “Millennium Partners did not build to bedrock.”
However, the Millennium Partners have leveled their own construction lawsuit, this one directed at the neighboring construction site. The Transbay Transit Center, say the Partners, is responsible for the tower’s sinking. However, Transbay countered this statement during the 60 Minutes story. They claim the tower was known to have sunk at least ten inches before their own work began.
A towering monument to negligence?
The construction lawsuits the Millennium Partners are facing have a critical factor involved: negligence.
Residents were not informed of this by tower management until 2016. Unsurprisingly, some residents decided to sell their property immediately. Residents such as Frank Jernigan and Andrew Faulk, former Google employees who invested in the tower. The couple lost between 3 and 4 million dollars in their rapid sale and abandonment of the high rise.
It is impossible to predict earthquakes with perfect accuracy. There are some known factors about earthquakes and San Francisco: they cause damage, and threaten tall buildings. The Millennium Tower’s foundation rests above sand, the remnants of the city after the 1906 earthquake. All of this is piled well above the firm bedrock beneath.
The major concern is that an earthquake could cause liquefaction of the sand and soil underneath the tower. There’s no way to perfectly guarantee the built-to-code safety measures would work as advertised if the need arose.
It’s a danger that residents remained unaware of until 2016.
Construction lawsuits abound, no solutions in sight
There is no painless way to reinforce the Millennium Tower as it stands today. While some interesting ideas have been proposed by local San Franciscans, whatever is decided upon ultimately must be paid for. This potentially devastating financial blow has the city and the involved businesses rallying their lawyers to court. It could take hundreds of millions of dollars to develop, and then implement a solution.
The firmest of these solutions? Drilling additional support piles down to the bedrock. It potentially will keep the building from leaning further, and may provide additional support during an earthquake. But this solution would have to be done to a structure that is more or less already complete. It’s a solution that other buildings, in particular the neighboring Salesforce skyscraper, have done during the earlier stages of construction.
Depending on the solution that does get implemented for the Millennium Tower, it could force residents to pack up, or else endure what is likely to be a very disruptive retrofit of the existing structure. And then the unpredictable factor of earthquakes must be considered. Some people have suggested that the whole tower should come down, before an earthquake makes that decision for San Francisco. However, like all other solutions that people have suggested, it could have a significant price tag attached; the construction boom the city is experiencing could come to an abrupt halt.
Regardless of what the Millennium Partners choose to do, it could take months, even years before any solution gets started. With so many tenants seeing their new homes lose millions in value, the tower will likely remain a target for further construction lawsuits in the foreseeable future. That much at least is firmly set in San Francisco’s bedrock.