'Sinking' San Francisco High-Rise Sparks Fears Among Residents

Image: The Millennium Tower is pictured in San Francisco, California
The Millennium Tower is pictured in San Francisco, California, on Sept. 14, 2016.BECK DIEFENBACH / Reuters

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By Chiara A Sottile

Towering 627 feet above the city of San Francisco, the Millennium Tower was supposed to be the pinnacle of luxury real estate, advertised online as "an address like no other."

But these days, it’s not the high-end condos, 75-foot lap pool, or climate-controlled wine cellar that make it stand out; it’s that the 58-floor skyscraper has sunk 16 inches and is tilting — in the middle of an earthquake zone.

Joanne Fox bought her home on the Tower’s 29th floor in 2011, two years after its completion. "They assured me that this was state of the art — brand new, solid as a rock, no problems," said Fox, a professional artist, in an interview.

But in fact, before the city approved the building for occupancy in 2009, the city and the building’s developers knew the building had already sunk 8.3 inches, according to a city supervisor and documents. Fox says she and her fellow neighbors weren’t notified until May of this year.

Pedestrians inspect cracks near the sinking Millennium Tower in San Francisco, California, on Sept. 14, 2016.BECK DIEFENBACH / Reuters

Large buildings do settle, and the Millennium Tower was expected to "sink." A memo to Millennium Partners from engineering firm Treadwell & Rollo (which has since been acquired by Langan), obtained by NBC News through a Public Records Act request, shows that the Millennium Tower was expected to settle a maximum of 5.5 inches by the year 2028.

But, the building has sunk 16 inches and is projected to keep sinking. It is also tilting: The roof has drifted 7.6 inches to the northwest, according to a study commissioned by the building’s developers, Millennium Partners.

"What bothers me the most is that the city knew and the developer knew but they didn’t disclose," said San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin in an interview at City Hall with NBC’s Jo Ling Kent. "Clearly the developer knew in February of 2009 that the building was not performing per specification. And yet they sold the units without disclosing to the individual buyers," he said.

"I feel I was duped. I was sold a lemon," said resident Paula Pretlow from her home on the building’s 31st floor. "If I had any inkling whatsoever that I was buying a building that was settling, sinking, and tilting, I never would have done it. I would not have made this investment."

Christopher Jeffries, a founding partner of Millennium Partners, says there was no reason to disclose the building’s uneven settlement.

The Millennium Tower is pictured in San Francisco, California, on Sept. 14, 2016.BECK DIEFENBACH / Reuters

"The building was totally fine. There was nothing to discuss, and the building would have been totally fine had it not been for our neighbor," Jeffries said in an interview.

The neighbor is the $6 billion Transbay Transit Center now under construction next door to the Millennium Tower. It is the future site of a five-story Transit Center which will house multiple bus and rail stations, and a 5.4-acre park on its roof.

The Transbay Joint Powers Authority (TJPA) is building the neighboring project, conducting underground work that has removed water from the soil. It is this dewatering that Millennium Partners says caused their building to settle beyond their initial projections.

"We have never had a building where, after the building was built, somebody built a giant train tunnel immediately adjacent to the property and then pumped water out from underneath the building," Jeffries said.

The TJPA maintains that "the tilt and most of the vertical settlement of the Millennium Tower occurred before the TJPA started any underground work or dewatering."

The TJPA attributes the tower’s tilting and sinking to the fact that the Millennium Tower was not built to bedrock while on soil known to be composed of clay and sand, blaming "the extraordinary weight of the Millennium Tower and its inadequate foundation" for the tower’s troubles.

Damage seen in the basement of San Francisco's Millennium Tower.Joanna Fox

Millennium Partners point out there is no city requirement to build to bedrock and that other buildings nearby are not built to bedrock.

Peskin, the San Francisco supervisor, says it is his mission to update those building codes.

"We should not be building to the minimum standards. We should be building to the maximum standards," he said in an interview. "Particularly because it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when the next big earthquake comes."

Residents say they see worrying signs in the building they call home, including cracked sidewalks, uneven floors, and water leaking in the basement.

"Those of us who go to the garage sometimes noticed that ... water was coming in the walls of the garage," recalled Joanne Fox. "And that was worrisome. And they just said not to worry and don’t talk about it," said Fox, referring to the building’s homeowner association.

Millennium Partners’ Christopher Jeffries says the building is "totally safe" and "settlement has not affected seismic properties of the building at all."

Damage seen in the basement of San Francisco's Millennium Tower.Joanna Fox

He points to an independent evaluation they commissioned by Simpson Gumpertz & Heger which found the building’s settlement has not had "a significant impact on the building’s safety."

However, the same analysis found that building elements including the foundation "do experience significant stress as a result of the settlement," calling stress on the foundation "quite high," and suggesting the concrete in it may be cracked.

"There is a constant low level of stress that I feel always when I enter my home, when I enter my building," worried Paula Pretlow. "What am I going to do? I’m going to stay here and hope that the building is fixed."

Millennium Partners says they are identifying the best experts to figure out how to do just that. "I didn’t cause the problem, and so now I’m trying to fix it because we really do care about these residents,” said Jeffries.

Many of the building’s residents are suing both the TJPA and Millennium Partners, and the city of San Francisco has issued subpoenas to Millennium Partners. San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin will hold a second hearing next week to discuss the Tower’s safety.