Despite the common denominator of serving as the backdrop for a hit Don Johnson TV show, San Francisco and Miami are two wildly different cities. 

The demographics are different. The politics are different. The culture is different. The weather — thank God — is different. More germane to the matter at hand, the architecture is different. The soil is different. It’s all different. 

So the shocking tragedy of a 12-story Miami-area condo tower partially collapsing into a pile of smoldering rubble, killing 11 and leaving 150 residents unaccounted for (and, all but certainly, dead) is not a direct analog for anything in San Francisco. Despite the worrying performance of our Department of Building Inspection and the ongoing departure of key members of its senior leadership in the wake of ongoing city corruption probes, these are two very different cities facing very different problems. 

But one glance at that mountain of twisted metal and boulder-sized hunks of concrete ought to impart on anyone in need of a tangible frame of reference how much gravity there is in the phrase “building inspection.” 

When firefighters are attempting to extinguish a persistent blaze in the rubble that hampers the already negligible chances of hauling a living being out of the maw, and bereaved relatives are affixing photos of the lost to makeshift billboards, it’s not the time to think “What did we know and when? How can we solve this problem?” 

San Francisco has problems of its own. And we’ve known a lot — for a long time. 

We have written a great deal about how, despite building inspectors’ warnings from as far back as 2016, the Department of Building Inspection did not take steps to solve problems regarding gas lines in mandatory seismic retrofits being improperly encased in concrete. Rather, it buried this issue and, according to multiple sources, punished inspectors who pushed it.

Beyond the gas pipe issue, we have written about how, also as far back as 2016, the region’s structural engineers began sharing concerns regarding the mandatory retrofits with the Department of Building Inspection. These were not niggling gripes, but, rather, significant allegations of shoddy design — by engineers who, perhaps, hadn’t even visited the job site — poor construction, and lax or even nonexistent inspections by DBI. These issues, too, were blown off. For years. 

We may yet rue this denial and obstructionism. But there’s no sense heading off in search of lost time. It can’t be found. Thousands of mandatory retrofits have been completed since the region’s structural engineers began imploring the Department of Building Inspection to step up quality control measures; some 4,000 are now in the books. But the remedies the engineers suggested in 2016, while clearly less effective now, are still valid. 

If there was ever a legitimate excuse to disregard them, there clearly no longer is.  

San Francisco’s mandatory seismic retrofit program was started with the best of intentions. A goodly portion of this city’s residents lived in vulnerable buildings — and, remember, rent-controlled housing destroyed in an earthquake needn’t be replaced with rent-controlled housing. Relatively tight deadlines were imposed to fix this. That’s all for the good. But not everything that came of this was good.

“I regret we didn’t anticipate a program like this would draw more bad actors,” longtime San Francisco structural engineer David Bonowitz told me in April. 

In fact, the retrofit program became, at least in part, a make-work program for unsavories and incompetents looking to take part in a gold rush. It was a perfect storm: Deadline pressure, loads of work, and building owners who may never have undertaken construction work more complex than an apartment renovation and who were hoping to spend as little as possible. 

Enter the bad actors: Questionably competent out-of-town engineers who were happy to produce drawings based not on site visits but Google Street View or as-built plans provided by questionably competent contractors, incentivized to bid low and work cheap. It’s kind of like The Music Man, but with seismic retrofits. 

You’d think demonstrably shoddy work would be caught by building inspectors. But it wasn’t.

“Look, people always say ‘this bathroom tile is terrible. How did that pass inspection?’ Well, that’s not a life-safety issue; the building inspector doesn’t give a shit about your bathroom tile,” explains a longtime city architect. “But when your moment frame isn’t attached to the building? That’s a life-safety issue. That’s something they should notice when they sign off on the building. And I have seen a few buildings where the moment frame isn’t attached to the existing building.” 

So, that’s a big deal. The moment frame is, in essence, a hard metal cage; it’s the means of making the vulnerable garage or ground-floor retail “soft” story in a structure hard enough to resist an earthquake.  

“I have seen a few buildings where the moment frame isn’t attached to the existing building.”

I ask the architect if having a moment frame and not bothering to attach it to the building is a bit like having a bike helmet and cycling along while it dangles from your handlebars. The architect says it’s worse than that. 

“If you have a rigid moment frame and the building is not rigid, they may not move at the same rate in an earthquake — and the frame may destroy components of the wood building,” the architect says. “The frame becomes a battering ram.” 

How could this happen? So many ways. If you have improper engineering drawings from a dodgy engineer, if your contractor is incompetent, if your design is not thought through — all of these could lead to steel being delivered to a site and the frame not fitting properly. 

In a time- and money-driven situation in which everyone is attempting to finish work and start the next job, shoulders are shrugged and a de-facto ornamental moment frame is improperly installed, arguably making things worse than before. 

And, here’s the kicker: It passes inspection. The pressure to speed along seismic jobs was intense, both to pad the numbers of this program and to appease influential contractors, we’re told. 

So, that happened. The city’s architects and engineers have untold numbers of war stories about things like this. How often this sort of thing happened — and, how often gas pipes were improperly encased in concrete or plans were ignored in feats of impromptu construction — we don’t know. 

The job now is to find out.

Constant Construction. File Photo by Shani Heckman

Bay Area natives seem to take a perverse joy in cajoling newcomers to admit that this is, indubitably, the best place on earth. Along similar lines, San Francisco’s Department of Building Inspection, as well as all vestiges of our so-called “City Family” seem to be required to anoint our mandatory seismic retrofit program an unbridled success. 

Is it, though? That seems to be the sort of thing that would require not only statistics about how many projects were undertaken — and these statistics are good — but how good the work was. How often the moment frames were properly attached, how many walls on the plans were built on the site, how many joists are going in the right directions. 

And we don’t have statistics regarding this. We don’t know. 

“I would like to think it’s a success,” says Bonowitz. “Parts of it are obviously a success. Parts of it, I think the jury is still out.” 

Bonowitz has, for five years, offered the Department of Building Inspection clear and salient steps it could take to answer these looming questions and — honestly — declare the program a success. This is not only a prestige issue but a safety issue. But the figurative wall he’s been hitting his head against would withstand a 9.0 quake.

All these years later, the department has invited him to, once again, offer input. Gamely, he’s doing it. Good for everyone involved.  

A notice of violation of the Soft Story Retrofit Program was posted at 680 Valencia St. after owners missed the deadline to comply with the program. Photo by Lydia Chavez.

So: Pick a handful of projects. Say, 20. Maybe 30. Pick a variety of retrofit styles. Pick a variety of engineers’ and contractors’ work. And go through and look for problems. Bonowitz isn’t concerned about small problems or judgment calls. He’s worried about big problems, like the plans not matching the building. He’s seen this with his own eyes.

See what you find with that initial sample. See if patterns emerge. Then begin going through the city writ large and see if those patterns keep emerging. That’s how you’d start. 

But you could do more. You can scour the city’s buildings and see why some weren’t included on mandatory retrofit lists to start with. You could hone in on projects where the plans or reports are lacking and vague. You could target projects tied to engineers and/or contractors accused of malfeasance or inspectors suspected of wrongdoing.  

Bonowitz notes that, as an engineer, he’s focused on the former. But, sure, you could do both. 

You should do both. 

But you should start by doing quality control on the work that’s been completed, which was a belated suggestion when the engineers made it in 2016 and is even more so now. Start soon. And allow outside bodies to participate; Bonowitz and his engineering colleagues have offered to help here, and have done so for years. 

Because, frankly, the Department of Building Inspection cannot be counted on to handle this work on its own. Otherwise we would never be having this discussion — in 20-frickin’-21. 

There are so many problems that could have been avoided if all these warnings were heeded five years ago. But that’s the past. We can never succeed in a search for lost time. 

But, if we act now — at long last — we may not need to search for lost people.  

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. Thank you Joe for your great investigative reporting. It certainly helps in creating transparency and holding those accountable publicly which is often hidden by DBI. One example is Cyril Yu who was a Tom Hui enforcer and who is now out at DBI. I am guessing he is another victim to the FBI investigation but givne that point, the self proclaimed transparency at SFDBI is actually more opaque than ever. Another blatant example is DBI inspectors and design reviewers ignoring the legal permitting requirements by fast-tracking Jason Hui’s project at 159 Marietta which sets directly on a landslide zone. This fact LEGALLY requires the builder/owner to comply with the Slope Slide Protection Act which requires heightened review and always adds structural safeguards not normally needed. In this case DBI simply ignored the requirements and issued an over the counter permit and with full knowledge of this fact, DBI inspectors approved the project at every step even though the project was illegal.

  2. 345 Arguello, a 5-story building in the Inner Richmond for low-income elderly and disabled tenants, is one of these. It’s in violation of the soft-story retrofit program. I shudder to think of what will happen there when the next big earthquake hits.

  3. Immediately rent needs to be cancelled for all these 4,000 units . Greedy landlords like Trump have corrupted DBI . We don’t want another San Bruno or Miami . Prayers to Miami. Landlords not providing safe housing. Cancel rent until it’s fixed . You listening London Breeddddddd . Time for her to step down and let Chesa be mayor.

    1. So the small property owners, who were victims of over-regulation and unscrupulous contractors should now be punished by canceling their livelihood? Not an astonishing viewpoint from a die-hard progressive, but really…

  4. DBI was crafted by the brain trust of RBA’s Joe O’Donoghue and poverty pimp Randy Shaw. Joe wanted to grease the skids for residential projects (think live-work lofts) and Shaw wanted code enforcement in SROs, preferably with a lighter touch to those associated with his role as THC landlord.

    The BIC has been a backwater staging area for political hopefuls. In addition to Melgar, Debra Walker was a longtime commissioner as Ammiano and the progs tried to set her up to win D6. And now Jon Jacobo is on deck to replace Ronen’s performance of liberal momism with a crunchy on the outside, soft and creamy on the inside, Latinx identity push in service of the gentrifying senior partners in corruption.

    The point of the BIC tour duty is to familiarize the acolyte with the way that palms are greased in land use so that they know when to say the loud parts and when to not say the quiet parts.

    Remember when Willie Brown remarked that San Franciscans liked corruption because it entertains us and does not pose life or death threats like a poorly designed bridge would?

    Yet the political class proceeds unfazed and actually doubles down on suspicious behavior like appointing consigliere of corruption, Dennis Herrera, whose lawyers counseled the BIC and DBI, to lead the PUC.

    1. I’ve lived in the Bay Area for 30 years, but as a relative newcomer to SF itself, I appreciate the backstories, so thank you.

      That said, I encourage you to write some modern film noir…

  5. Why not require city employees be sworn in, made to testify under oath? Won’t undo incompetence or negligence, but might get answers more focussed on the questions and shorter in duration.

  6. Do our elected officials care about this? My experience has been that the elected officials say “oh you have to ask DBI they’re the experts.” Cleary DBI officials are not experts (many are incompetent). Shouldn’t the Mayor and the BOS demand testing for inspectors? Shouldn’t engineers sign off on regulations? Your previous article on this topic stated that chief inspector (current interim director of DBI) Patrick O’Riordan, a contractor NOT an engineer, ordered his inspectors to “NOT STOP THE WORK” on any project that needed to encase gas lines in cement.
    If our elected officials won’t protect us, can we do it by ballot measure?

    1. A ballot measure created the Department of Building Inspection. Granted, things weren’t great when it was part of Public Works, but the resulting department is a farce. The commission is a political animal that responds more to the special interests that got the members appointed rather than acting as an oversight committee. As previous articles from our humble narrator have shown, the commission and the department are controlled by the Residential Builders Association and by the permit expediter as like Walter Wong. It’s been that way forever, but under the administrations since Willie Brown, it’s become so blatant that Ray Charles could see it even now, and he’s been dead for 17 years.

      While a ballot measure is needed to undo the commission, what’s really needed is a complete housecleaning at the department, top to bottom. Contract out the entire operation to a reputable architectural and engineering firm in the interim. While that’s being, scour the country and develop a new department that uses best industry practices and has a working, rational, SECURE computer system.

      What we have now, sadly not just in DBI, does not work and, given the characters involved, never will without outside intervention.

      Good article Joe.

  7. Seems like the Building Inspection Commission has been doing a lousy job of oversight.