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Inspectors claim they "don't remember" hearing about sinking Millennium in 2009

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Nobody expected this single hearing to break the case wide open, or even yield all that much substance; it did, however, outline some shortfalls in the city’s development process in rather startling term

Patricia Chang

In a hearing today concerning the troubled Millennium Tower, five San Francisco lawmakers lined up a bevy of Department of Building Inspection officials to ask, simply, what happened?

Raymond Lui, an engineer with the Department of Building Inspection, wrote a letter to Millennium Partners in 2009 warning them that the building was sinking. At today's hearing, however Lui said he doesn’t remember writing it.

How did he find out about the building’s problems in the first place? "I have no idea," says Lui. "I can only speculate. I’m pretty tight with a lot of engineers. Maybe one of them mentioned it?"

Two more DBI engineers, CC’d on the same 2009 email, said that they don’t remember ever seeing it either. In fact, the email doesn’t even appear in DBI’s records anymore. They got it back only recently, when Supervisor Aaron Peskin’s office sent it to them. And Peskin received it from NBC Bay Area’s Jaxon Van Derberken. Ouch.

"Wouldn’t a letter like that be somewhat interesting to you?" Peskin asked engineer Gary Ho.

"I would say so," said Ho. But like most of the others, he pleaded no memory of the incident. "I can’t help you."

"I wasn’t in charge," was all that DBI director Tom Hui had to say. (Which, to be fair, is true. Hui didn’t become acting director until 2012, though he'd been with the department for years before that.)

If the department did much of anything about the building’s troubles at the time, nobody remembers it now. Which is a shame, because today would have been an excellent time for it to suddenly come back to them.

Patricia Chang

Peskin, chair of the city’s Government Audit and Oversight Committee, called for the hearing last week, citing concerns that someone, somewhere had turned a blind eye to the intransigent tower’s troubles.

Some called it political theater. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Matier & Ross note that Peskin was among those who approved the building’s construction in the first place, and uttered no complaints about its design then.

Assistant Director Ron Tom did his best to defend DBI’s honor. "We inspected the construction site from 2006 to 2009. We saw no obvious signs of settlement," said Tom.

DBI doesn’t have the staff to go around keeping tabs on all 200,000 building in town, he added. "We deal with new construction and complaints."

(Building inspectors may have little leverage to punish all but immediately life-threatening violations even when they come up. Budget and staffing shortfalls are a constant gripe.)

Regulations about such things were not as robust a decade ago, noted Tom. Even the independent review of the Millennium Tower’s design was a voluntary giveaway on the part of developers.

"Today’s building’s require greater scrutiny. At that time, it was negotiable."

So why didn’t anybody even start an investigation when the Chronicle broke the story about the building’s slouching descent on August 1 (instead waiting more than three weeks)? Or even when Senator Dianne Feinstein wrote Mayor Ed Lee about it?

Again, no one seemed quite sure.

Dozens of Millennium Tower condo owners attended this morning’s hearing, along with attorneys in their pending litigation. Was anyone back in 2009 warned that the building might have problems? "I am not aware of any disclosures to any buyers," one attorney said.