Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Leaning Tower of San Francisco

By the year 2100, the area where I live will be under water.

Fortunately for me, I will be long gone. Not only will I have cagily sold my condo the day before the market peaks, and passed papers the day before a 100 year Sandy-style storm floods my building, but – by 2100 – I will be long DEAD and gone.

Boston’s Back Bay (there’s a reason it’s called Back Bay) and the flats of Beacon Hill (where I live) are built on reclaimed land. In fact, the landfill that reclaimed it came, I believe, from the lopped off top of Beacon Hill. This made Beacon Hill less of a hill, while also making Beacon Hill more of a neighborhood.

All of the residential buildings in the hood are old. Old-old. My block dates to the early 1860’s. And one of the peculiarities of old buildings is that most of those put up on reclaimed territory have wooden pilings.

Despite the future coming of the great flood, one of the problems in my area occurs when the water table drops. When that happens, those wooden pilings dry out. So most of the homes on the flats (and, I suspect, in Back Bay) have had to replace their pilings at some point.

When I lived on Brimmer Street, the back yard of the house we lived in was a mucky construction zone for months while our landlord replaced the pilings. Fortunately for us, the pilings in the building where I now live were replaced prior to our buying our condo.

Still, there are plenty of things to worry about – that Sandy-like storm, for one - which could send the Charles River gushing through the windows on my lower floor.

There are other problems, as well.

Right after my renovation project finished last fall, the floor in the front ground floor unit fell about 3/4”. This came as quite a shock to the 99 year old fellow who lived there and his home health care attendant. My unit, which also has a ground floor component, dropped a bit in the corner by the door, but was mostly spared the full drop.

At first, we were concerned that the entire building was compromised – visions of the firemen coming and giving us all 5 minutes to pack what we could – but it turned out to be a relatively small-p problem. Bad, but not condemn-the-building bad.

In any case, I fully understand how unnerving it can be when bad things happen to good buildings, especially for the residents of said buildings.

Thus I read with interest a story in The Boston Globe the other day on San Francisco’s Millennium Tower, a lux-y condo building that, when its apartments were up for sale seven years ago, neglected to disclose a critical point. Sure, they notified prospective owners that the they might hear street traffic, and that the landscaping specs could change if the plants they thought they were going to use weren’t available.

But the 21-page disclosure document left out what owners of units in the buildings now say was a crucial detail: that the building had already sunk more than 8 inches into the soft soil by the time it was completed in 2009, much more than engineers had anticipated…

The Millennium Tower, which its developers say is the largest reinforced concrete building in the western United States, has now sunk about 16 inches and is leaning 6 inches toward a neighboring skyscraper. The building’s tilt has become a public scandal, a dispute that has produced a wide-eyed examination of whether San Francisco’s frenetic skyscraper-building spree was properly monitored by city authorities. (Source: Boston Globe)

I guess it goes without saying that an issue like this is of particular concern in a city like San Francisco, which has been known to have an earthquake or two. And which – unlike other cities with tall buildings – doesn’t have bedrock to anchor its skyscrapers. (Despite it being built on swamp, the tall buildings in Boston’s Back Bay bore through the landfill guck and get built on bedrock. There aren’t really any tall buildings on Beacon Hill itself.)

Needless to say, the Millennium Tower condo owners are none to happy, as they’re looking at property values that will be worth a lot less than what they paid. The sewage connections may fail. The elevators could stop functioning if the building keeps tilting. And then there’s the ultimate fear: someone figures out it might topple and declare the building uninhabitable. See you in court!

Nicholas Sitar, who’s a civil engineering professor at U Cal Berkeley is quoted in the article saying, “Any time you have a tall structure leaning, you have to start looking very carefully.”

I’ll say. (Building overboard…)

The entire situation sounds like a big finger-pointing litigation in the making. When the Millennium Tower was built, it was one of the first skyscrapers that went up in its district. There weren’t any regulations in place on how to deal with it. Developers hadn’t built there in the past because the land was too squishy, but engineering improvements over the years made them believe that it was now okay.

Among the other things that have come out is that city correspondence with the engineers responsible for the Millennium Tower project “had disappeared from the files.” There was no rule saying the city had to keep them, so they didn’t. (Really? Isn’t most correspondence these days electronic? Doesn’t EVERYTHING get saved. I see a voyage of discovery coming up. This will be keeping lawyers busy for years to come.)

The tilting tower has produced introspection among engineers in part because when the building was completed the developers received at least nine awards for “excellence in structural engineering,” among other citations.

That introspection has led to a suggestion from one engineer that the way to save the building is to get rid of the top 20 floors. Which might be okay – if the horror show of living through your building being dismantled for a couple of years is ever going to be okay -  if you hadn’t paid $2M+ to live on one of those top 20 floors.

My brother Tom is a civil engineer, and over the course of his career he’s worked on a number of major projects. No skyscrapers that I know of, but some plenty big deals. (Tom was lead engineer on Camden Yards, the Baltimore Orioles stadium.) Shortly after 9/11, he told me that, from an engineering perspective, the Twin Towers did their job. They weren’t designed for a massive airplane to deliberately fly into them, but they were, Tom said, sufficiently well built that they lasted long enough for a lot of people to get out safely. I’ll have to ask him what he thinks about the Leaning Tower of San Francisco. I’m just glad I don’t live in it.

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