Millennium Tower: San Francisco’s Sinking Luxury Condominium That's Tilting 3 Inches Every Year

Millennium Tower: San Francisco’s Sinking Luxury Condominium That’s Tilting 3 Inches Every Year

New Delhi: The infamously sinking Millennium Tower of San Francisco is also continuously tilting to one side.

According to latest reports, the glossy, all-glass building on 301 Mission Street, the city’s tallest residential building, is tilting by about 3 inches (or 7.5 cm) toward the north-west every year.

The 58-storey luxury condominium built in 2008 was home to star athletes, retired Google employees and other wealthy people who had multimillion dollar apartments in the building. But most of the residents started selling their units, spooked by the structural concerns as it was established that the building was sinking.

According to experts, all buildings settle a bit into their foundations, and original estimates had said the building could sink 5.5 inches by 2028. But it has already sunk around 18 inches, Dailymail reported Monday.

Engineers working on stabilising the building, however, claim that residents can continue to live there, and that there is no danger of it collapsing, the report said.

But the work to stabilise the building appears to have triggered another concern. The ritzy tower is now leaning 26 inches. While the tilting had started earlier, it is being said the ongoing work of fixing the sinking issue has aggravated this other problem.

If it continues to tilt at the current rate, the building’s elevators may stop working in a few years’ time and the plumbing will be rendered non-functional, The Guardian reported Tuesday, quoting engineer Ron Hamburger, who is looking after the project.

Signage outside of 58-storey Millennium Tower in San Francisco, California | Photo: Getty Images

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Millennium Tower And The Sinking Feeling

When the building came up in 2008, there was a long line of buyers looking to own a piece of it. All 419 apartments were taken soon for a reported total of $750 million, as the condo tower opened in 2009 with much fanfare — right after the housing market had crashed.

And why not? Complete with a health club, spa, a 75-foot indoor lap-pool, in-house cinema, and a restaurant and wine bar run by celebrity chef Michael Mina — the building constructed by Millennium Partners was all things luxury.

The cheapest apartment was sold for $1.6 million, and penthouse suites for more than $10 million, according to the Dailymail report.

The house phone in the apartments came with an “engineering” button, and the residents loved it.

“If you have a stopped up toilet or a leak, you just hit the button and someone comes up and fixes the problem within 15 minutes,” retired Google engineer Frank Jernigan, owner of two units in the building, told The Guardian in 2016.

But the structure had sunk 16 inches by then, and also tilted at least two inches.

The revelation set off lawsuits and government inquiries.

House owners also started to reporte fissures later.

Many residents decided to sell their apartments, though there were assurances from officials that the tower is safe.

A $100 million plan was put in place in 2020, as part of a confidential settlement, to fix the structural issues, but the building’s sink and tilt have continued, said the Guardian report on Tuesday.

During the litigation, some residents had argued that apartments once assessed at over $5 million were now worth almost nothing, the report added.

The 2020 confidential settlement also included a plan to compensate homeowners for estimated losses.

The Dailymail report said around 100 condos lost $320,000 in resale values. The parking garage now has floor-to-ceiling cracks, it added.

There has been a 10-inch increase in the tilt since the repairs began last year, according to a report in NBC Bay Area.

Engineers were working on the building’s foundation last year when they discovered that it had sunk another inch since the repairs began a few months ago. The work was stopped then.

NBC Bay Area had reported then one inch of tilt at the foundation meant an additional 5-inch lean at the top.

In a hearing last week, The Guardian report said, Hamburger told the San Francisco Board of Supervisors that the building is still safe, and that installation of 18 steel piles to its bedrock will be the best way to stop the tilting. This could possibly also reverse some of the tilting, he said.

The San Francisco Department of Building Inspection is said to have approved the 18-support-beam plan.

Pedestrians walk beneath a scaffolding constructed in front of the lobby entrance to the Millennium Tower at 301 Mission Street in San Francisco | Photo: Getty

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What Caused The Structural Issues?

In 1906, a devastating earthquake had levelled most of San Francisco city. The Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 collapsed parts of the freeway and the Bay Bridge. Both were caused by the San Andreas Fault Line.

Earthquakes usually occur on faults, and San Francisco is transected by seven subparallel fault lines.

There were always fears that there could be another big earthquake in future, and that kept San Francisco from having very tall buildings.

But developers got ambitious in the new millennium. And they went ahead with their plans even though a group of engineers from the University of California Berkeley pushed for stricter standards for highrise buildings, the 2016 report in The Guardian said.

The Millennium Tower was among the first highrises in the city.

As of February 2016, a three-bedroom unit was listed for nearly $9 million, the report said.

But things changed after news of the sinking broke in August that year.

Millennium Partners, the developers, had initially blamed government agency Transbay Joint Powers Authority (TJPA) for the structural issues Millennium Tower had started to develop.

TJPA was building a massive transit terminal next door to the building.

Quoting a Millennium spokesman, The Guardian reported in 2016 that the TJPA had undertaken five years of “dewatering” that dropped the water table beneath the Millennium Tower, “causing the soil to compress more than normal, resulting in the building settling beyond what could have been predicted”.

The TJPA, however, argued that most of the building’s settlement had occurred before the agency began underground construction in the adjacent plot.

It said a “completely inappropriate foundation for such a heavy structure” was the “only plausible explanation” for the situation.

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