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News + PoliticsThe Leaning Tower of Soma is a mess—but everyone's ducking responsibility

The Leaning Tower of Soma is a mess—but everyone’s ducking responsibility

Is the cure worse than the disease? Will the building keep tilting and sinking? Can it survive an earthquake? Answers do not inspire confidence

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In 1986, when it became clear that the Reagan Administration had lied about the Iran-Contra Scandal, Vice President George Bush told the press that “mistakes were made.”

It’s a perfect soundbite, one that has a long an ignoble heritage, and a perfect example of what’s wrong with the passive voice in politics: Gee, something bad happened, but I sure didn’t do it, and I’m not going to suggest than anyone else in particular did it either. Mistakes were just made; nobody made them.

I kept thinking about that as I watched the supes hearing today on the Great Leaning Tower of Soma. Everyone seemed to agree that the project was a mess from the start and that the “fix” the engineers agreed to has just made things worse.

But nobody is taking responsibility.

Mistakes were made. A lot of them.

The tower, also known as 301 Mission, was once among the most expensive and fancy condo towers in the city. But shortly after people started moving in, the building, made of heavy concrete and not anchored to bedrock, began to sink and tilt.

Lots of lawsuits followed, and eventually the developer, Millennium Partners, and the homeowners and the city agreed to a deal that included a “fix.” But that final engineering plan, which called for sinking more than 50 new pilings to bedrock on the perimeter of the building and then jacking part of the load onto those pilings, turned out to be a problem:  As Sup. Aaron Peskin noted at the hearing, “the cure was worse than the disease.” The building started tilting even more.

So Peskin and the members of the Government Audit and Oversight Committee have tried to figure out what went wrong and why. It’s been a struggle.

The project engineers say the contractor messed up. The Department of Building Inspection says they didn’t need to monitor the contractor. The oversight engineering panel says it’s not sure how far the building can continue to tilt without failing in an earthquake.

But an outside expert who has no financial interest in the project says the fix is potentially more dangerous than anyone wants to admit.

Among the revelations we got today:

—The decisions on repairing the building were driven not just by safety but by the developer’s finances and possibly the terms of the legal settlement and the funding that deal provided. Some options were discarded not because they might not work but because they would cost too much.

—The team that designed the repair job never analyzed how many new pilings were really needed to safely stabilize the building and has now shifted from 52 pilings to just 18.

—The process of digging the new pilings almost certainly caused the building to lean even more, and even faster—but the engineers now say the next set of pilings will be completely safe.

—Even today, the city isn’t sure how much more the building can lean without becoming a safety hazard. But the tower is still sinking and leaning—and at some point, in the next six to 20 years, it could reach the point where it can’t survive a major earthquake.

—One expert said that the fix was never about stabilizing the building as much as it was about stabilizing the value of the condos on the real-estate market.

Ron Hamburger, who is the engineer of record on the repair project, testified that “the building is safe” although “we need to finish the project quickly.” This was a theme: Everyone says there’s no immediate danger, and maybe even no long-term danger, but the city and the developer also say something has to be done without delay.

Hamburger said that he started off with the idea of sinking 52 new concrete piles on the perimeter of the building into bedrock (the existing pilings go only into sand and clay), but “the technique that the contractor planned to use would have cost more money” than expected, so they reduced the number of pilings to 42.

Now, after digging new pilings caused the building to tile more, that has been reduced to 18.

When he started the project, “I never asked how much fewer pilings we could use,” Hamburger said.

“That is rather mind-boggling,” Peskin said. “We are now asking what was the optimal fix in the first place.”

That remains unclear.

Hamburger also said that the building could tilt 40 inches in the next six years and as many as 80 inches in 20 years.

He told Peskin that the increased tilting was caused by “over-excavation” and “those procedures were the contractor’s prerogative.” In other words: Mistakes were made. But not by us.

Sup. Dean Preston asked a representative of the Department of Building Inspection to explain at what point the building would become unsafe. The answer: We are looking into that. But 79 inches would be potentially dangerous in “an extreme earthquake situation.”

Robert Pyke, who has a PhD in engineering from Berkeley and 50 years of experience as a civil and geotechnical engineer, testified that the repair project, with the installation of perimeter piles that will be connected to the existing concrete mat foundation, is “complex and unusual.” More:

One might have thought that for a building which already had a settlement problem, that the design team would have done the necessary research regarding minimizing additional settlements before beginning the production installation, rather than during construction.

In fact, Pyke said, if they use this 18-pile system to shore up one corner of the building, it may not solve the overall problem:

Once the north and west sides of the Tower are underpinned, settlement along those two sides will be greatly reduced. However, settlement will continue on the south and east sides and the direction of the tilt will reverse. All might then be well except that the continuing settlement is now largely due to “secondary consolidation”, which can go on “forever”, so that the Tower may end up tilting to the south-east. This discussion about future settlements also assumes that the Asymmetric Fix is otherwise fine, which it is not. …

Pyke suggests another possible problem:

A section of his December 27 letter to the Homeowners’ Association he says: “we judge that the 18-pile solution offers an optimal solution between additional settlement and benefit gained.” This does not pass the smell test. What is more likely is that the design team is panicking because they are out of time and the money provided under the settlement agreements. This judgment cannot be supported by engineering arguments, so it must be driven by something-else.

In an earlier letter to the design team, he noted:

But I thought at that time, and still think, that the PPU will not solve the settlement problem and that the south and east sides of the building will continue to sink as a result of secondary consolidation / creep bearing capacity failure for the foreseeable future, and that it is possible that the building will be red-tagged after even a moderate earthquake (such as a Hayward fault earthquake which could occur any day).

He also testified that in lectures at the Universities of Kansas and Minnesota, “Hamburger said something like ‘the building is fine. We really don’t need to do anything. This is all for show to restore real estate values.'”

At the end of the hearing, he suggested that the best solution might be doing nothing:

I would go further and suggest that the optimal course of action at this point is to reduce the number of piles that are connected to the Tower to zero. I believe that zero perimeter piles would offer better, although not completely satisfactory, long-term performance. As Supervisor Peskin has previously suggested, a complete review of this matter needs to be undertaken to see whether there is a better long-term solution to the original problem. The fact that the existing design team has so badly mismanaged the pile installation, gives no confidence in their assertions that the perimeter pile solution can still work. The options going forward might be complicated by the existing legal agreements, but the city needs to spell out what is acceptable and what is not.

The city, of course, means DBI. That does not give me a lot of confidence.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.
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