February 13, 2014

A Day Late And $1.5 Million Short

125%20Crown%20Terrace.jpg

A report by Department of Building Inspection chief Tom Hui cites "[a failure] to follow and implement the approved plans and the sequence of construction" for leading to the collapse of 125 Crown Terrace in December.

The Twin Peaks home was being supported by three reinforcing towers at the time of the collapse, rather than nine as specified in the approved building plans. Developer Mel Murphy, the former president of the Building Inspection Commission, blames the collapse on a steel beam failure between the three supports and contends the additional six towers were to be put in place the next day, according to the Chronicle.

Murphy’s original application for the "remodeling" stated a project cost of $60,000, a figure that was first upped to $300,000 and then to $610,500 in early December following an anonymous complaint. The estimated project cost, based on which permit fees are figured, was upped to $1.57 million at the end of December.

According to Murphy's business partner, Luke O'Brien, the low-ball project cost estimates were not a premeditated attempt to cheat but rather "a mistake" that the Department of Building Inspection should have caught, and "that's always the way it's done."

Slew of permit problems cited in S.F. house collapse [SFGate]
Collapsed Home Was Being "Remodeled" By Prominent Developer [SocketSite]
Remains Of Collapsed Home Hoisted, "Remodeling" To Recommence [SocketSite]

First Published: February 13, 2014 8:30 AM

Comments from "Plugged In" Readers

"the way it's always done".......corruption SF style

Posted by: sfjohn at February 13, 2014 8:34 AM

Shameful! Of both Murphy and the City. This is a problem that is easily fixable. Where is the integrity of all parties?

Posted by: noe mom at February 13, 2014 10:02 AM

Absolute corruption by both the contractor and the DBI.

Disgusting.

Posted by: Futurist at February 13, 2014 10:40 AM

while amateurs scowl, real pros are quietly taking notes:

- 3 x 20 foot spans where 9 x 9-12 foot required
- "previously used (distressed) steel beam"
- "40 minutes before quitting time"

Posted by: how to at February 13, 2014 10:49 AM

We should stop putting workers lives at risk while they work under these jacked-up tower-supported dry-rotted house skeletons --pretending it's just a remodel. Contractors, homeowners and developers should be able to pay fees in lieu for demolition for the safety of their workers. This kind of "its not a demo" charade often adds $150-300K, or more to the cost of the dwelling and puts workers at risk. Lucky no one was killed in this one. Hundreds of workers are at risk every day on these kind of sites.

Posted by: Pioneer at February 13, 2014 11:04 AM

The soundtrack for this story should be the Talking Head's "Once in a Lifetime."

Posted by: tomcat at February 13, 2014 11:24 AM

Oh come now, this is just a more prominent version of what happens across SF every day. $500 permit pulled for "laundry room re-piping" that magically builds an entire in-law apartment with jacuzzi tub. Yeah, it's corrupt and potentially dangerous. Just like everyone else's cheating, except on a grander scale. The issue isn't a lack of character, the issue is being so brazen about it that it might force changes that make everyone else's cheating more difficult.

And the justifications are always incredibly self-serving: DBI is corrupt; I'm doing it to code anyway; I'm only making interior changes; I'm only making non-structural changes; my neighbor did it and nobody complained; it's the only way I can afford to stay in SF; it's the only way I can afford to maintain my property; etc, etc, etc

Posted by: Average Joe at February 13, 2014 11:27 AM

What really cheeses me off about this situation are the two tiers. Well connected developers get a pass. But when a homeowner pulls permits for a DIY project, the inspector dons the blue latex gloves and explores all sorts of nit picky and often inconsequential rules.

Posted by: The Milkshake of Despair at February 13, 2014 12:58 PM

A "more prominent version of what happens across SF every day"? ...Sure, some under report the cost of a job, but really?? What’s now reported as a $1.57 million job was initially permitted as a $60K job (26+ times less than $1.57 million) for apparently the same official scope of work.

Is it too much to ask that the owner/builder, the former president of the Building Inspection Commission and someone the mayor calls a friend (perhaps the mayor ought to be paying a little closer attention himself…), be held to the same standard any other builder is held (however lax and corrupt that standard may perhaps be)? Is that perhaps the least we can expect? The owner/builder long ago caught the attention of and pissed off all his Twin Peaks neighbors, you might think that on this job he’d fear additional scrutiny and play it a little straighter. Yet now the owner/builder has the balls to claim the report is covering up DBI shortcomings and unfairly tarnishing him? And that the 9 shoring towers called for in the permit were all due to be in the day after the collapse (whoops, sorry, we only had three!)? How long and how much has he been getting away with that his sense is this out of whack, and that he thinks anyone believes the things he says?

If the owner/builder and his business partner really think $60K was an appropriate amount to submit for “remodeling” work, that “no one was trying to cheat on fees”, and that it was the city’s job to accurately calculate the appropriate amount, who is going to hold DBI’s/ the city’s/the mayor’s feet to the fire to enforce the law and codes and clean things up? When the mayor calls the owner/builder a friend, when the project engineer was appointed to the City College Board by the current mayor and appointed Building Inspection Commission president by the preceding mayor, sounds like they’re all in bed together.

...Maybe DBI will get cleaned up when homelessness is solved and Muni runs on time.

Posted by: johntrev at February 13, 2014 1:20 PM

Revocation seems in order.

Posted by: EH at February 13, 2014 1:23 PM

Well said, Milkshake. Our city government is an incestuous little clique well illustrated by this little episode.

I give Ed Lee a 0.0% chance of cleaning out DBI. At this point it may be worth it to fire everyone there and start from scratch. I know it would cause all sorts of delays in the short term, but it's so corrupt that I don't see any other way. There's nothing worth saving.

Posted by: SFRealist at February 13, 2014 4:02 PM

Having gone through this whole permitting process myself as a homeowner who had his home built this really isnt about ONE developer intentionally marking down costs for lower permit fees, this is about a system that does not check itself from one level to the next and everyone in the development/construction game knows it. Development plans are hardly even reviewed as a whole, but broken up by different engineering review sections. The only person who really gets an eye on a full project might be the building inspectors who unless called out for inspection or complaints can sparsely be found around a job site.

So its almost a given against issues of integrity that contractors/developers can list a false construction cost (for smaller residential)and possibly get away with it, especially when the permit fees between 1.57 million and $60,000 is approximately $15,000 in plan check and permit fees, including school board fees, and not including other fees. And given the very public issues with DBI its not a stretch that in the past a portion of that found its way to DBI employees on some level.

All in all the contractors response is of no surprise, because he is right, its exactly how it is done...just that nobody really cares to take a closer look until something happens to bring it to light, but in the meantime it really is essentially on public complaint that anything is questioned. I had a neighbor a fee houses up who jacked his house up and added an entirely new first floor, keeping exterior wall of the upper level (initially) and did it all initially under a $25,000 permit for adding a first floor garage and bathroom. If it wasn't for a neighbor complaint an inspector wouldn't have noticed it till they had rough framed it and completed all piping/electrical.

Posted by: Rob at February 14, 2014 10:28 AM

Isn't the easy solution here a bit like how the IRS goes about its job (think about the self-employed reporting their earnings): you are required to submit signed permit forms (before and after a job) and pay taxes/fees...and your odds of being audited are small...but if you are audited and the paper trail (think payments to contractors, material purchases at vendors, credit card receipts, etc in the case of a remodel) shows a material difference from what was reported, your penalties will far outweigh the potential savings of under-reporting. you could even adopt the IRS approach of rewarding whistleblowers with 1/3 the bounty collected for telling on an under-reporting neighbor. presto...overnight you'll have real compliance and probably 10x the permit fees going to help the city fund things like low-income housing. everybody wins...except the Murphy's of the world.

Posted by: no_ vally at February 14, 2014 12:52 PM

No Vally, that sounds good in theory, but in practice everyone at DBI is completely corrupt. In that system, there's no chance a Mel Murphy would ever get audited. It would *always* be the unconnected homeowner who just wants to put in an extra bathroom or something.

Posted by: SFRealist at February 14, 2014 3:41 PM

I remember getting a lecture from one of SF building inspectors, about how they don't run, "fast and loose"

I was installing the deck safety rails on the steps as he drove up and he went on a tirade about me wasting his time.

Some Cities on the Peninsula farmed out all the building inspectors and don't have any on staff. Good luck waiting 2-3 weeks for a final permit sign off.


Posted by: inclinejj at February 15, 2014 9:03 AM

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