Millennium Tower Secrecy May Have Paid Off For Consultants

In 2010, the public agency constructing the Transbay terminal signed a $650,000 contract with the geotechnical firm that officials now believe is to blame for the Millennium Tower’s flawed and sinking foundation.

The terminal sits right next door to the sinking tower, but a confidentiality agreement may have limited what Transbay officials knew when they awarded the contract.

Officials with that agency, the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, stress that the seven-year contract with Treadwell & Rollo is limited to soils removal and environmental consulting on the Transbay project – not geotechnical advice.

But Elsa Ortiz, a member of the Transbay governing board at the time, told NBC Bay Area that she would not have voted to award Treadwell & Rollo any contract based on what she knows now.

“As I recall, and I’m kind of sure we were not told about the seriousness of the settlement of the building,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz said that the board made a series of votes that she now questions. One, she said, dates to late 2008.

That’s when the board approved what she thought was a standard easement agreement to allow Transbay access to the Millennium project next door.

Ortiz says she did not realize that the Millennium project was even sinking. She also says she didn’t know about a provision of the agreement that made the Transbay Authority liable, should its project contribute to the problem.

“It would have raised serious concerns, and the implications would have gone just beyond the building,” she said. “So, yeah, I would have liked to have known that was happening.”

By 2010, Transbay officials realized the building was sinking worse than predicted.

In February, Transbay opened negotiations over a potential financial settlement regarding the sinking. The following month, the Transbay authority sent out a report detailing the extent of the sinking…along with an email that specified the data was “confidential” and “not for public release.”

Transbay officials recently acknowledged that some data related to the tower’s sinking was “mistakenly labelled” confidential.

Mistake or not, the head of the citizens advisory panel on the project said no one told him about the problems at Millennium.

"There was no information that I recall one way or the other to show that there were problems about to happen, or preexisting conditions,’’ said Jim Lazarus of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.

At the time, he said, he chaired the panel charged with soliciting public opinion about the project.

“I don’t think any of that information every came across during our meetings,” Lazarus said. “Five or six years ago, during this time period, I recall nothing about the building sinking, nor do I recall anybody from Millennium telling us that they had concerns about the building.”

With the Millennium data marked secret, Treadwell & Rollo – the soils engineers who designed the foundation – won approval from the Transbay governing board. The contract consisted of a seven year consulting deal related to soils removal on the Transbay transit project.

That was three months after the Millennium data was deemed confidential.

Ortiz says board members did not know what was going on with the sinking Millennium building next door, let alone the firm’s role in the project.

“It was not disclosed to us that they were working, also on the Millennium tower, we just approved the contract because they got the highest score,” she said.

“If I had known there was kind of conflict in there – I don’t think I would have supported it,” she said,

Jerry Cauthen, an engineer and consultant to the Transbay project, before the Millennium was built, said that he was “a little bit surprised” when he learned that Treadwell & Rollo ended up with any consulting deal given his experience with the firm.

He said Treadwell & Rollo had an aggressive, even arrogant position in defending another project that experts feared could sink, at nearby 80 Natoma St. That project was halted in 2004 amid concerns it could sink and ended up being scuttled.

Cauthen says he wonders what the screening committee for the consultant contract knew about Treadwell & Rollo’s track record.

“It’s conceivable that the committee didn’t know about some of the history. Treadwell & Rollo is not going to outline that history,” Cauthen said.

Treadwell & Rollo officials are not commenting on the Millennium project. Meanwhile, the $650,000 consulting deal is still in place.

Transbay officials issued a statement saying the contract is limited to “environmental consulting, environmental remediation, and hazardous waste abatement for the Transbay Project” and is not for geotechnical services.

The agency said Treadwell & Rollo “ranked the highest” in how it responded to questions posed by Transbay’s panel.

“No issue related to the Millennium Tower is within the scope of the contract,” the agency wrote. They went on to state that the engineers who designed the Millennium foundation “are not involved in this contract.”

However documents reviewed by NBC Bay Area, and prepared by Treadwell & Rollo under the consulting deal, mention the wall Transbay was building between the two projects. Treadwell & Rollo engineers now blame that wall for the sinking problem.

Treadwell & Rollo noted that “proposed construction activities will disturb soil during the excavation,” included “construction of a buttress for the adjoining 301 Mission Street property.” The firm recommended anti-dust measures for the work.

Ortiz said that whatever the details about the consulting deal, she is troubled about how little the board knew when it granted the contract to Treadwell & Rollo in June 2010.

“I think that anybody on the board would have raised concerns too, what would been have the solutions? I don’t know.”

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