Satellite Imagery Shows the Leaning Millennium Tower in San Francisco is Worse Than Previously Thought

If San Francisco is trying to top Pisa, satellite imagery suggests they’re having success. Located downtown in the Financial District, the Millennium Tower has become a towering debacle this year, with revelations that the 58-story luxury condo skyscraper, which opened in 2009, has sunk into landfill far more and far faster than expected — enough to make it lean noticeably to the northwest. The building’s developers have tried to downplay those claims amidst falling property values, but they got some bad news this week — men lie, but satellite imagery doesn’t.

This week, SF Gate is reporting on satellite imagery they received from the European Space Agency on November 24. Trying to spot the lean from the ground has become something of an attraction for residents and tourists alike, but the high-resolution shots from up high show a building that is very clearly tilting toward the northwest. The ESA had been monitoring the building from April 2015 to September 2016 and found that during that time, the building sunk 2.6 to 2.9 inches. That’s faster than previous engineer estimates that put the rate at one inch per year. Since the building’s opening in 2009, it has sunk 16 inches into the landfill below, already exceeding original engineering estimates of how much the building would sink in its lifetime. The San Francisco Chronicle, which broke the story this August, also reported that the building is leaning two inches to the northwest.

SF Gate and the San Francisco Chronicle have done terrific jobs of covering the story in detail. Suffice it to say that at this juncture, the blame game is in full swing. Some of the building’s tenants, angry about falling property prices and revelations that both the city and the developers had known about the sinking since 2010, are in the process of suing the developers, Millennium Partners, for anchoring the building into the mud below instead of drilling all the way down to bedrock. The developers say that other buildings in the area used the same methods during construction, and that it’s the fault of Transbay Joint Powers Authority, a city agency responsible for the ongoing construction of a new transit center next to the Millennium Tower. The developers claim that the land dug away for that construction has caused their skyscraper to lean in the opposite direction, but the authority spent tens of millions of dollars in 2010 to reinforce the Millennium Tower’s foundations before they started construction. I haven’t been following the story as closely as I should be, but I’m pretty sure no one involved has apologized for anything so far.

The only thing that seems certain is that the tower will continue to sink and lean, with the satellite imagery suggesting that will happen more rapidly than anyone is willing to admit. An engineer hired by the developers completed a report saying the building would be safe in the event of an earthquake, but it is worth pointing out that this was an engineer hired by the developers, who are trying to sell luxury condos. Make of that what you will.

Header Image: European Space Agency, via SF Gate

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