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Tower Inferno 

Mayor Newsom aids a developer at the apparent expense of the Transbay Terminal project, raising a question: Is the new boss just like the old boss?

Wednesday, Jun 16 2004
You may already have read about a public tug of war between a developer who wants to build a downtown condominium tower and a governmental entity that's planning the nearly $3 billion redevelopment of the Transbay Terminal and environs. The Transbay project would turn the run-down terminal into a West Coast Grand Central Station, connecting BART, Caltrain, Muni, and bus lines with a proposed bullet train to Southern California -- except for Jack Myers, a developer who has the right to build a 51-story condo tower and impede or derail a transit project that is viewed as key to the city's economic development plans.

In the standard media version of this catfight, government planners are utter bunglers, blind fools who somehow allowed the giant Transbay project to go forward without paying any attention to Myers and the tower he may build at 80 Natoma St. But behind the standard media version is a reality that is anything but standard issue, and it raises serious questions about the activities of Mayor Gavin Newsom, one of Newsom's top aides, and a financier behind the 80 Natoma project named Richard Ressler. Unmentioned in coverage of this dispute is another important question: Why is Newsom's office siding with a developer apparently bent on gaming San Francisco out of millions of dollars?

"Parochial real estate interests, in collusion with the Mayor's Office, are interrupting this process," says BART Director Tom Radulovich, who co-wrote 1999's successful Proposition H, prohibiting San Francisco officials from impeding redevelopment of the downtown Transbay Terminal. "Certainly it seems like the spirit of Proposition H, if not the letter, is being violated by the Mayor's Office. They are doing some things that are compromising the project."

Myers, for his part, says the mayor is simply trying to cope with the unreasonable manager of a terminal project that's in Myers' way.

"The mayor has mandated a win-win solution with the Transbay Joint Powers Authority. But TJPA engineers have not been compliant with the administration's desire to find a win-win solution -- that is, that both projects can coexist. We believe they can. And the Mayor's Office has a hope that they can. But the TJPA executive director and her engineering staff have completely ignored the mandate to find a win-win, or has not been agreeable to finding a solution," says Myers.

In other words, Transbay project engineers, from the prestigious London-based firm of Ove Arup & Partners, think Myers' quick attempts to redesign a $3 billion transit terminal to his own benefit aren't workable.

Fancy that.

To understand how unusual, and unfortunate, it is for our mayor to apparently be carrying water for Myers and his financial backer, political moneyman Ressler, it's useful to wallow in the muck for a while. Forget about the subway terminal for a moment, and focus on the strange, mud-suspended building planned for 80 Natoma St.

Imagine a condominium tower taller than any other west of the Mississippi, composed of nearly 500 apartments, built over a huge expanse of sand sitting atop compressed bay mud of the sort that extends under much of the South of Market area. Then imagine that the building's designers did not provide what seems, to some engineers, the obvious support for such a building: a foundation that extends to the bedrock below. Instead, the building's support pillars go less than halfway down to bedrock, leaving the skyscraper effectively anchored in mud.

Engineers who've studied the design of the condo tower say its enormous weight would press upon the mud like a fist in a bowl of dough, squishing it in all directions. In their view, this floating monolith would cause the land in the building's neighborhood to sink between two and six inches. And as the sinking edifice pulled the rest of its neighborhood downward, too, these engineers contend, streets, sidewalks, and sewers could sink. Over time these public works might crack or rupture, without anybody realizing quite why. Whether that occurred or not, as the apartment building pressed upon the mud, the engineers say, the mud would develop a yen to escape.

As it happens, the government plans to excavate a massive subway station under and next to the mud-squishing apartment building. The minute the government cuts trenches deep into the earth for the subway, the pressure under the mud-anchored building could, some engineers say, create a cataclysm.

"The building sinks, and the soil deforms, and it wants to push up into the hole you're making. There's no way in the world to build a hole like that without a massive ground failure," says Gerald Cauthen, an Oakland consulting engineer who recently resigned from his job with the Transbay Terminal project, citing frustration at the lack of progress resulting from the 80 Natoma dispute.

"You have a 50-story building built on short piles. There's no way we could come in and excavate under a building that's built on short piles. It causes a tremendous amount of risk for the city," adds Maria Ayerdi, executive director of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, the city-state agency created to turn the old terminal at Second and Mission streets into a modern transit hub. "We asked them, 'Why don't you extend piles 200 feet to bedrock?' [Myers] refused to do that. We asked him in March of this year. He said he couldn't extend them to bedrock because he had covenants in his financial documents that precluded any kind of delays."

Myers, for his part, has insisted it's the subway terminal's responsibility to revise its plans to suit his building.

"Someone made a decision to lay a rail alignment down the middle of my property without due process," says Myers. "We hope people can rise above the fray and sort out what has become a very messy situation, in which we had no complicity."

For some as-yet-unexplained reason, Mayor Newsom's office has lent its political weight to Myers' version of a solution to the problem. A Newsom staffer has spent the last month or so badgering subway planners to consider Myers' proposals for redesigning the multibillion-dollar terminal to accommodate his unusual floating monolith.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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