Let’s remember: This entire project was funky from the start. At first, in March, 2008, Murphy applied for a permit to demolish the modest single-family home, which was occupied by renters. The Planning Department resisted, and for good reason: City policy clearly states that preserving existing rental housing is a top priority. So in October, 2011, Murphy came back with a new plan: He was going to “remodel” the house. The permit application calls for a “horizontal and vertical addition” that would turn the roughly 900-square-foot place into a 5,700-square-foot mansion.
If you take down more than half of the walls or floors of a building, that counts as a demolition; Murphy insisted he would keep 90 percent of the existing structure. Which was, to say the least, a stretch: As Williams pointed out, the new plans were so extensive that it was, in effect, a demolition and rebuild.
“In order to believe that that proposed project is an ‘alteration’ or ‘remodel’ one must suspend all disbelief,” Williams argued to the appeals panel. “What seems clear is that that the claim that 90 percent of the walls and foundations will be retained is physically impossible and those elements of the building can never meet the seismic standards in today’s code. The original building was constructed in 1941 and the foundations for the one-story structure cannot support a four-story structure. Further, the plan calls for a new floor under the existing foundations.”
The Planning Department didn’t see it that way, and accepted the application.
(above, an undated picture from SocketSite shows supports under the structure. Below, a photo taken by neighbor Steve Williams (no relation to attorney Steve Williams) a day before the collapse shows very little holding up the building)
There were other problems. According to evidence submitted to the Board of Appeals, no licensed architect or structural engineer drew up the plans for the new house – and given its size, and the fact that it sat on a 40 percent grade, city rules mandate that a certified professional sign, and stamp with a seal, the plans before they’re submitted.
Planning still accepted and approved the plans – and it wasn’t until neighbors challenged the project that Murphy got structural engineer Rodrigo Santos, also an ally of the mayor who, like Murphy, had served on the Building Inspection Commission, to put his stamp on the documents.
Again, Williams argued, that wasn’t valid: “The licensed professional is not authorized to simply sign plans; the plans must have been created under his direction and supervision, and these were not,” the appeal he filed with the board states.
Meanwhile, because of the steep hillside and the potential for danger, Murphy was required to hire a licensed surveyor. But, Williams charged in his letter and appeal, that didn’t happen at first; the survey documents Murphy presented were wrong by 11.5 feet, and it wasn’t until the project was before the Planning Commission that a licensed surveyor looked at the site.
The Planning Department allowed a categorical exemption from environmental review – even though the site is in a known seismic hazard and flood zone. From Williams’ letter to the City Attorney:
“In violation of its own procedures, the Planning Department did not even require [Murphy] to complete and submit an environmental application. [Murphy] submitted an application for the project originally when it was a demolition and was rewarded with an unspecified Class One categorical exemption. When the project was changed to an “alteration” and the Department failed to require the developers to complete a new “CEQA Categorical Exemption Determination” application that would have triggered a second Environmental Application for the new project because the project requires soil excavation in excess of eight feet (8’) and large concrete piers on the steep hillside. After we appealed, they submitted a half-hearted retroactive application which should have been the FIRST thing submitted.”
A senior inspector for the Department of Building Inspection, Joe Duffy, was dubious about the assertion that most of the existing structure would be retained. As he testified to the Board of Appeals:
Just the statement that I made about the 100 percent of the foundation being replaced in this project, I have not seen the structural drawings. What I said is what I meant and what I meant to say is that in my experience as an inspector, most of those projects like this size you generally take it and put in a brand new foundation. Mr. Williams pulled out a letter from Mr. Santos where he said that around 90 percent of existing foundations and walls will remain in place and Mr. Santos may want to speak to you. But in my experience on these type of projects we don’t see any of the existing foundation remaining at all it has to be taken out because it has to be taken up to today’s code. The other thing about this demolition thing and people talk about walls remaining. The city departments we are bound by codes and regulations and whenever Planning approves something like this and the Building Department gets involved and we have got these walls to remain in place, and then you have got structural drawings, where someone wants to keep the walls but they want a seismically sound building, that is challenging for everybody.
In other words, project opponents say, this project was allowed to proceed despite all sorts of issues that might have stopped construction on any normal development.
Santos did not return my phone calls seeking comment. Attempts to reach Murphy were also unsuccessful.
Construction on the property is being overseen by Pattani Construction Company. Documents on file with the state Contractors License Board show that the two principals in the firm are Murphy and his wife.
Murphy was a licensed contractor until the late 1980s, when he let his license expire, state records show. Pattini is licensed and bonded.
The City’s Attorney’s Office will be looking into this fiasco – and perhaps part of that probe should involve how a project like this got approved in the first place.