San Francisco

Millennium Tower residents complain of unpleasant byproduct of continued tilt

NBC Universal, Inc.

Two residents of the troubled Millennium Tower have complained to NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit about what they fear is the unpleasant byproduct of the continued tilting of the luxury high-rise -- frequent drain backups.

Mehrdad Mostafavi said he once considered his third floor Millennium Tower condo his sanctuary – even posting a sign near his kitchen proclaiming: "THIS IS OUR HAPPY PLACE."

But that changed as the luxury rise continued to sink and tilt over the last decade, he says, and he started getting recurring flooding problems from overflowing drain pipes. He pointed to repairs he has had to make in his ceiling and walls as well as around his washing machine and his toilet. He says wastewater has even mysteriously bubbled up and filled his kitchen sink.

But, he said, all that was nothing like what he said he faced when he came home late on Sunday, June 11. The next day, he took us up to show us what happened.

"When I came home last night, the water … it was up to here," said Mostafavi, a 58-year-old network engineer – pointing to the black and brown muck that had filled his kitchen sink and overflowed onto his countertop, cabinets, flooring and even his oven and his nearby office.

Mostafavi says he fears he will end up having to replace all his cabinets as well as the entire hardwood floor in the two-bedroom unit he bought back in 2012 for $865,000.

But Mostafavi is not alone in suffering plumbing problems. A renter on the third floor who didn’t want to be named provided NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit photos and videos of problems that she says left her entry hall hardwood floor damaged and carpets around her washing machine stained. The problems started soon after she moved there in 2021, when she had trouble with her toilet.

Millennium Tower staff blamed wipes – that she says were flushable – for clogging her system. But the problems continued, she said, after she stopped using the wipes. Crews now snake out her kitchen drain line twice a month, she says, showing us the records of their visits.

"They said that they do this to prevent clogging. And then even though they're still doing this and we’re still having things foaming up from the kitchen, from the kitchen sink regularly," she said.

San Francisco’s leaning Millennium Tower is now partly supported to bedrock as part of a “seismic upgrade,” but experts tell NBC Bay Area that questions remain about how well the newly bolstered tower will stand up in a quake. Jaxon Van Derbeken reports.

In August of the year she moved into her third floor unit, the lead engineer in charge of the ongoing fix project, Ron Hamburger, briefed city officials about “Functionality Issues” associated with the building. He pointed to one potential problem with the 1/8th inch downward slope per foot required by code to ensure proper drain operation. Drains tilting to the south and east, he said, will be most vulnerable to the building’s northwest sinking and tilting.

"Sewers sloping to the south and east will experience decreased slope and may become a problem," he said, adding that the "drain line from the (second floor) kitchen has become problematic and is being maintained with periodic chemical flushing. It may be necessary to adjust this and other lines to re-establish slope."

Millennium Tower officials didn’t answer questions about Mostafavi’s flooding issues. But they sent us a statement saying that all the water problems in the building are limited to just two third-floor units. They blame the backups on wipes and other non-flushable items, not tilting.

They cite a building engineer's report dated in January 2022, five months after Hamburger’s assessment, recounting that tower staff was "running into issues regarding educating tenants on their habits regarding sanitary wipes and other non-flushable products that are causing backups in these lines."

Tower officials stressed that Hamburger had "merely stated that it was possible" for such backups to happen when he gave that earlier assessment. They added that drain line slopes have “always remained within code standards." However, monitoring data shows the tower's tilt has gone from 19 inches at the time of Hamburger's report to 29 inches now.

"We cannot expect this to be a one off – It’s a systemic issue that requires attention," said Mark Savel, an architect and contractor who studies building failures like the Berkeley balcony collapse that killed six people back in 2015.

He says that while wipes flushed down toilets can obviously be a problem, tilting is the most likely cause of the backups being reported by the two tower residents. The only permanent solution, he says, is to adjust the drain lines to make sure the pipes are properly sloped downward, despite the tilt.

San Francisco’s Millennium Tower has been sinking and leaning for years and the final phase of the fix is now underway. Investigative Reporter Jaxon Van Derbeken, who has been at the forefront of the investigation for years, has some insight.

The time to do that, he says, may be now. "This is undoubtedly a health concern," Savel said. "It's a potential for property damage and it's going to continue, if not worsen, over time."

Mostafavi recalled the initial joy he felt when he bought his unit in 2012.

"I was so happy, a beautiful apartment,” he said. “I was so happy coming here, moving here."

Now, he says, he just feels trapped in his once-beloved condo, unable to sell.

"There’s so many problems happening here now, it is more than bothersome," he said as he stood next the sign proclaiming it to be his "happy place."

"It is not manageable anymore moneywise and time wise, I don't know what to do,’" he said, adding that he should change the sign outside his kitchen to reflect his current nightmare. "I have to put 'UN-' here --- 'UN-HAPPY PLACE.'"

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