On March 21, high winds left broken and cracked windows on floors 11 through 30 at 350 Mission. Photo courtesy of DBI

San Francisco is a town where you can expend so much effort being wary of what’s underfoot that it’s easy to lose sight of what’s overhead. 

And that can be a problem, indeed. In March, during the height of the city’s spate of windstorms, a couch was caught on film, sailing past the windows of SoMa’s glass condo towers like a frisbee, eventually crashing far below on the pavement at Main near Folsom.

It was a profoundly jarring object for a skyscraper-dweller to see whiz past at eye level; it brought to mind the scenes of a statue of Jesus being helicoptered through Rome in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.” If that couch had flown 10 more yards, an oblivious pedestrian on Main Street would’ve seen Jesus, too. 

A couch is likely the most photogenic and exotic object to sail out of a San Francisco skyscraper in recent months, but it’s hardly the most dangerous or troublesome. In March alone, seven different downtown towers succumbed to the windstorms, showering city dwellers below with massive plates of glass. In some cases, buildings failed spectacularly, losing scads of windows off more than a dozen floors. Here’s the tick-tock: 

  • 555 California St. (the Bank of America building; partially owned by the Trump Organization), March 14; 
  • 580 California St., March 14; 
  • 50 California St., March 21; 
  • 301 Mission St. (yes, the godforsaken sinking, leaning metaphor for San Francisco, Millennium Tower), March 21; 
  • 350 Mission St. (Salesforce Tower East, which had broken or cracked windows on floors 11 through 30), March 21; 
  • 1400 Mission St., a tower with a disturbing history of “defective and dangerous” window drama, March 21;
  • 1390 Market St. (Fox Plaza), March 23. 

By some stroke of providence, nobody was hurt or killed by the scores of plummeting panes; this is the rare moment to think, “Thank God downtown is moribund and abandoned.” But the danger is all too apparent, and cordoning off goodly swaths of the city, re-routing Muni buses and calling out the cops and firefighters is a serious drain on San Francisco’s resources. More to the point, relying on dumb luck is poor municipal policy, and our elected leaders, unnerved by the possibility of their constituents being sliced to ribbons, have taken their concerns to the Department of Building Inspection. 

So here’s what DBI is gonna do: They’re bringing in the Façade Program. 

But this is not exactly akin to calling the cavalry. Unless it’s a very small cavalry: The Façade Program is presently staffed by a grand total of two employees. While we’re at it, it’d also be a slow cavalry.

The program has been around for a while, but if you don’t own a vintage building or work in the gargoyle trade, you can be forgiven for never having heard of it. It was created by ordinance in 2016 because it’s just a good idea to periodically inspect the façades of the tall and aging structures populating a city located between two major earthquake faults. 

Large buildings built before 1910 were required to hire an architect or engineer to submit a  report to the building department by December, 2021, (the Façade Program doesn’t do the actual inspecting, but approves the private inspectors’ work). Buildings erected between 1910 and 1924 have until December of this year to submit a report. The newer your building, the longer you have to submit your report. 

Of the 228 pre-1910 buildings that should’ve submitted a report by 2021, only 144 did — a 63 percent compliance rate. That’s troubling.

Engineers familiar with façade reports say it should take around four hours of work for building department officials to review them. Supervisor Aaron Peskin says building department officials also quoted that four-hour figure to him. 

The average amount of time it takes for DBI to review and approve a façade report following its submission is 137 days. This, too, is troubling. 

DBI tells us that this lengthy period of time “might” include the days a building owner holds onto a report after receiving input from the building department. But the building department doesn’t track this. And that hardly sounds intuitive. 

The average amount of time it takes for DBI to review and approve a façade report following its submission is 137 days.

A rough month for windows. Graphic by Chuqin Jiang

So, that’s how things were before; kinda slow, kinda troubling. And, now, we’ve given this program more work to do, in the form of processing façade reports on 71 relatively new 15-plus-story buildings, spurred by this city’s recent bout of defenestrations.    

One private contractor who has handled numerous façade inspections said he was not concerned with the Department of Building Inspection’s slow turnaround time. 

“The completed report acknowledged by DBI is a bureaucratic check,” he said. “They are not coming back and telling the owner anything they don’t know.” 

There is some truth to that. But this would also acknowledge that, more often than you’d hope, there isn’t all that much building inspection going on at the Department of Building Inspection. That might work out if the engineers and builders being deferred to are on the level. It didn’t go so hot in the cases of Walter Wong or Rodrigo “RoDBIgo” Santos

So, if the building department needs more personnel, authority — whatever — it should ask for it, says Peskin. 

“You cannot have glass raining on human beings,” says the board president, whose pending legislation would expand the scope of the Façade Program. “If they need more resources, more authority, a law  — they need to tell us that.” 

It turns out that San Francisco’s downtown skyscrapers aren’t the only thing in this city riddled with holes. So’s the logic of the law created to ensure their exteriors would be properly inspected. 

Everything about the 2016 ordinance creating the Façade Program was, on its face, intuitive. The older a building is, the sooner its owners were mandated to get it examined and submit their reports. But the window blowouts in March undermined this thinking: Three of the buildings are less than 15 years old. And, while that was a very blustery month, at no point did the winds kick past the extreme levels these new buildings were designed to withstand. 

But the windows shattered, and with them the logic underpinning the city’s ordinance. 

With that in mind, the most consequential move by the DBI may be its decision to bring in a qualified outside engineering firm to study the spate of window failures and “establish criteria for glazing system-specific façade inspections.” A firm may be hired as soon as this week.  

That’s all for the good. But it’s also another reminder of how reliant this city is on private, third-party experts, especially in the case of modern high-rises. 

The curtain walls on downtown’s shimmering towers, notes a veteran city building inspector, “come in prefabricated. They’re like Lego pieces.” And the Legos aren’t scrutinized by building inspectors before they’re snapped together. 

These pieces, continues the veteran inspector, are “all certified” beforehand, and any sort of design flaw “doesn’t get caught until something happens.” That’s hardly ideal, and the forthcoming study is much-needed: “Something is amiss here, and they have to get to the bottom of it.” 

One should hope. Otherwise San Franciscans in the present and near future may — like the Italians in Fellini’s 1960 classic film — find themselves gazing upwards and exclaiming: Jesus! 

Update, 4:30 p.m.: Board President Aaron Peskin today delayed by one week his legislation expanding the scope of the Façade Program. His concern would be subjecting 71 buildings to undue scrutiny if there is some manner of explanation more closely tying together the buildings that experienced failures.

The Department of Building Inspection had hoped to hire an engineering firm to analyze the failures as soon as this week.

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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. Joel your reporting is thorough on this it seems to me. Thanks! Mr. Peskin is super thoughtful on this matter and I’m glad he is in the position to make a difference going forward.

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  2. Now folks have another reason not to return to work in San Francisco they can claim glaziphobia the fear of falling glass.


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  3. I went to school at Stonybrook in Long Island. For awhile, I lived in a room in a house and one day, Hurricane Gloria came to town. It was a category 3 Hurricane in 1985. Well, during the storm, the little old lady that rented me the room opened the front door and then the back door. She said she was inviting the storm into her house and inviting it to leave. It was some sort of old wives tale. Nothing happened to her house but I did see an apple tree fall down in the lady’s yard. But the next day, I heard that many of the windows broke in the Physics Building at Stonybrook. It was said that too much pressure built up on one side of the building and popped the windows on the other side. Well, I think the skyscrapers need some… venting.

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    1. Don,

      What a great story.

      Everyone needs to rent a room from an old lady in a college town on their resume of life, I sure do.

      Future buildings (particularly in Urban areas) I predict will look like ant hills or prairie dog homes.

      We’ll have learned by then that Earth houses are better defenses against nuclear blasts.

      One answer for the window problem would be to go back to the little old lady’s period where all long windows had casements shutters and there are thousands of them in St. Louis where I had my place and its in Tornado Alley and never heard of one breaking.

      Hmmm, casement shutters on a 50 story building ?

      Hmmm ,,,

      Go Warriors !!


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  4. In 1995 I started working at 505 Montgomery. We were required to attend an earthquake safety class for the building. At that class, I was told that quake safety for high rises takes many forms including designs to sway and roll. I’ve never forgotten the info that: “the BofA building is designed to peel at a certain degree of shaking, to stop it coming down. If you’re ever near 555 Cal and the ground starts to shake and it isn’t a cable car coming, run”. The advent of extreme weather may require the rethinking of some of these interventions, or maybe the guy was just telling tales for shock value and I took that bait.

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  5. How many people work at DBI? They make it sound like there’s some type of hard limit on how many people they can assign to a particular area. DBI is funded by permit fees: The more a development costs, the more DBI gets. Does that sound like a recipe for corruption to anyone? And is the mayor in charge of DBI, or the board of supervisors? What does she have to say?

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  6. The Broken Window Theory would have the DBI clamping down with vigor on the first window to break so as to discourage other windows from exploding onto the street.

    This is why every YIMBY should be run out of San Francisco on rails or bridges, an Uber or Lyft would do the trick as well, as they demand further deregulation of building standards so as to entitle more and more higher and higher residential buildings.

    Given the catastrophes of the Millennium Tower, 33 Tehama and now the ensemble performance of the defenestration follies, the SFDBI is the weakest link.

    If these buildings (not the Millennium) are failing superficially, then we can only imagine how they will “perform,” superficially and structurally, under seismic stress.

    We splurged for a weekend at the Harbour Grand Kowloon hotel in Hong Kong a few years ago with a 13th floor (!) view of Hong Kong harbour. On our second day, typhoon Mangkhut roared in at Category 3 , the eye 100km offshore. The complex has 3 towers closely spaced. Hurricane force winds created a strong venturi effect, the low pressure from which popped out hundreds of windows and left the sidewalks covered in blue glass. As I made videos from the room, holding my iPhone up against the pane to capture the turmoil, I could feel the window bowing in and out due to the pressure changes. The hotel did right tho, serving us all of the fancy food for fear of a power loss. So we were snacking on crayfish, petits four and beer as the winds roared, kinda like a New Orleans hurricane party.

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  7. The windows fell out during unprecedented winds of over 75 mph. How many fell out before and after? Any statistics? My suggestion would be to invest in a scaffolding company. Anyone who’s been to NYC can attest to the success of their façade program. Almost every building in Manhattan is surrounded by bulky scaffolding to protect the public from a one and a million hit by a piece of facade. Nothing has been done to address the problems with the facades. Just another way to milk money out of property owners.

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    1. The vast majority of buildings in NYC are not covered in scaffolding. What a wild exaggeration. That said, older buildings which commonly that have facade issues often leave up scaffolding as all facades in NYC require inspection every 5 years, and they can skirt costs of having to assemble and dissemble scaffolding (not to mention it hides the less desirable exteriors of some builds). Buildings that choose to leave up scaffolding and sidewalk sheds have to have it inspected every 6 months.

      The point you’re really trying to make is that NYC DOB operates magnitudes better than than the inept corrupt sh*tshow which is DBI.

      To Marcos above, why can other cosmopolitan metropolises each with their own weather challenges build up and out but we cannot hear? It has nothing to do with YIMBY but everything to do with our dysfunctional city leadership. 2 employees, you’re asking the right questions. Why aren’t our Mayor and supervisors?

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