San Francisco's 'leaning' skyscraper tilted up to 3 inches last year

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

San Francisco’s swanky Millennium Tower is slowly sinking — and, as a result, the 58-story skyscraper tilted up to 3 inches to both its north and west last year, according to the engineer tasked with fixing it.

Opened in 2009, the estimated $350-million project comprises two buildings, the larger of which is home to 419 luxury apartments, including a lavish $13-million, 5,500-square-foot penthouse. The tallest residential structure in the city, the tower’s uneven settling has caused cracks in the surrounding sidewalk and the basement walls of its smaller, 12-story sister building next door.

Though engineers are now working to stabilize the skyscraper, a city hearing last week revealed that the tilting will continue for several more months. Experts have blamed nearby construction projects and a process known as “dewatering” for weakening the soil beneath the tower.
The San Francisco skyline got a new addition in 2008 with the 58-story Millennium Tower (pictured right).

The San Francisco skyline got a new addition in 2008 with the 58-story Millennium Tower (pictured right). Credit: Santiago Mejia/The San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images

The $100-million fix, announced in October 2020 after years of lawsuits and hearings, is expected to be completed later this year. According to the stabilization project’s chief engineer Ronald Hamburger, who spoke at the hearing, the building has continued to tilt at a rate of 2.5 to 3 inches north and 0.75 to 3 inches west during 2021, he confirmed in an email to CNN.

“We start this new year 2022 as we ended last year and many other years, with the Millennium Tower continuing to sink and tilt,” city supervisor Aaron Peskin said at last week’s hearing, according to NBC.
In recent years, the rate of tilting has lessened as the building settled, according to Hamburger. But fluctuations have occurred, including increased leaning from September to December 2021, part of which coincided with a two-month pause in construction over concerns that stabilization efforts may be worsening the problem, according to local media outlets. As of December 31, the tower had leaned a total of 24 inches to the west and 7.9 inches to the north, Hamburger said. It has settled around 18 inches deep into the ground.

But the tilting is expected to worsen through September of this year, Hamburger said, as engineers install new support piles — concrete columns encased in steel — that will reach more than 250 feet into the bedrock below to anchor the building.

Construction to stabilize the two buildings includes new piles, anchored to bedrock deep below the ground, that will eventually bear the weight.

Construction to stabilize the two buildings includes new piles, anchored to bedrock deep below the ground, that will eventually bear the weight. Credit: Gabrielle Lurie/The San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images

“Once these piles are installed… using hydraulic jacks, some of the building’s weight will be transferred to these new piles,” Hamburger explained. “This will reduce the excessive pressure on the Old Bay Clay materials that caused the original settlement, stop the settlement and allow the building to begin recovering some of the tilt that has occurred.

“The retrofit is not going to ‘stop the sinking’ until the piles are driven into bedrock and attached to the foundation,” he added. “Because the stabilization is still under construction, it has not yet worked to help the building.”

Towers on tilt

Leaning towers are not unheard of when it comes to older architecture. Structures famous for their tilts in Pisa, Italy, and Nevyansk, Russia, have become tourist attractions, while London’s Elizabeth Tower (the clock tower containing the famous Big Ben bell) has a slight but increasing lean. But an occupied modern skyscraper leaning because of unstable ground in one of the most expensive US cities is a costly and contentious dilemma.

“They’re relatively rare, but I think when you are dealing with (leaning) towers you do need to be extra careful because they reveal themselves in a way that a lower building wouldn’t,” civil engineer John Burland told CNN in a 2017 interview. “A low building may settle a bit more at one end than the other, but most of that can be taken up within the building’s structure.

“The trouble with a tall building is that you can see it leaning, which people don’t like. It might be safe, but the owners of the building are not going to be at all happy,” he added.

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At 645 feet high, the Millennium Tower is the fourth tallest building in San Francisco. Designed by Handel Architects and developed by Millennium Partners, the tower’s properties will continue to sell as engineers work on the fix. In December, a one-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment sold for $1.16 million, while a one-bedroom, one-bathroom sold for $765,000, according to Zillow.

Hamburger said the building is safe for residents and will remain so.

“Since we anticipate that the rate of tilting will continue to decrease with time, and will eventually stop, we do not anticipate the building would ever tilt enough to become unsafe,” he said. “I have performed analyses that indicate the building can withstand at least 70 inches of tilt to the west and 30 inches to the north before its ability to resist earthquakes would be compromised.

“Even if this amount of tilting was exceeded, the building would still be safer than most existing buildings in San Francisco, but not as safe as intended by the current building code,” he added.