A skyscraper in San Francisco is sinking—and taking down property values along with it

Going down.
Going down.
Image: Frank Schulenburg / Wikimedia
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In 1849, the first ship sailed into San Francisco Bay carrying miners seeking their fortunes. Few found them. Their successors in the technology economy have struck it rich, though, and many have taken up residence in the biggest residential skyscraper along the city’s old shoreline: the 58-floor Millennium Tower.

But both the tower and the property values within it are teetering now.

The Millennium Tower, completed in 2005, is located on landfill over what used to be part of the San Franciso Bay. The massive structure has sunk 16 inches—more than the 12 inches engineers originally predicted—and has tilted about two inches over the last 10 years. That’s not an immediate threat to anyone’s safety, but sidewalks in front of the building are buckling and residents are furious.

Prices in the 163-unit building have dropped by more than 40%, with one $9 million three-bedroom unit now going for just $3.79 million, according to a report in The Guardian.

Millennium Tower was ranked by Worth magazine as one of the world’s top 10 residential buildings in 2012. Joe Montana and Hunter Pence live there, and it was home to famed venture capitalist Tom Perkins before his death, according to SF Gate. But the building’s ritzy reputation has been no match for the compressing soft sand and mud beneath it.

San Francisco has steadily filled in its waterways, reports KQED. Modern landfill is in pink.
San Francisco has steadily filled in its waterways, reports KQED. Modern landfill is in pink.
Image: KQED

The city contends that its engineers warned of potential problems, even halting construction on a similar building nearby in 2004 over concerns about excessive settling. Other critics contend that the Millennium Tower’s concrete design and shallow support pilings (80 feet instead of a 200-foot option) were cost-saving shortcuts, rather than the preferred design, as the building’s developers, Millennium Partners, have argued. The developers, meanwhile, accuse the city of having caused the problems by pumping out massive amounts of underground water to build the new $6 billion Transbay Terminal next door. 

Structural engineers have declared the building to be safe, saying the settling will have have a “negligible” effect on the tower’s operation or its ability to withstand earthquakes. It’s likely a judge will have to weigh in on the matter soon.

The image above was taken by Frank Schulenburg and shared under a Creative Commons license on Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license on Wikicommons.