The 8 Washington shit show

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Pretty -- unless there's a sewer main broken below

The latest problem with the 8 Washington condo project emerged March 12 when the Chron reported on a new study that shows construction of the most pricey condos in San Francisco history could threaten a major sewer line that serves a quarter of the city. That report, which is pretty scathing, came the same day the SF Public Utilities Commission voted to sign off on environmental approvals and sewage easements that would allow the developer to move forward with preliminary design work -- even though the project will be the subject of a voter referendum in November.

The engineering report says, among other things, that construction on the project (involving significant excavation and the driving of 100-foot pilings) could cause the ground around a main sewer pipe to shift by as much as 5 1/2 inches, when "the normally accepted limit for tolerable ground movement is less than an inch." That's kind of a problem, since the North Force sewer pipe handles an awful lot of shit, and would be very expensive to repair.

There's also an underground sewage vault that could be damaged by the construction work.

And the developer isn't helping much. As Brian Henderson, chief engineer for the PUC, told the commissioners, "we've agreed to disagree about these issues."

In other words, the 8 Washington folks are giving the city a big FU -- and still asking for approval to begin work on a project that more than 30,000 voters insisted go on the ballot first.

That ought to be enough reason for the commission to put this whole thing on hold, wait until some more studies are completed (and the PUC engineering staff is satisfied that the developer won't shatter a sewage main). After all, no construction work can begin until after November anyway; what's the rush?

Well, Commissioner Francesca Vietor asked that very question: What happens if we say no? General Manager Harlan Kelly hemmed and hawed. Assistant General Manager Mike Carlin said the developer "would have no incentive" to work on a better design. And all of the PUC senior staff said there's no reason to worry, since this would all come back again once negotiations with the developer are completed.

Oh, and by the way, they said, the Port of San Francisco has asked for this. (Actually, no: According to Sup. David Chiu, Port officials have said they do not intend to push for any preliminary approvals for 8 Washington until after November.)

Carlin insisted that there was no reason to be concenred about the data in the report that the city had commissioned and spent more than $100,000 on. "We are very diligent about protecting our infrastructure," he said, adding that existing building codes protected the city's interests anyway. See, if your neighbor digs a new foundation and screws up your foundation, your neighbor has to pay to fix it.

So no worries; about 200,000 San Franciscans might be unable to flush the toilet for a while, but in the end, the developer (a limited liability company controlled by Simon Snellgrove) will be on the hook for the repairs, after the lawyers are all done fighting it out.

In fact, the very concept that the commission might not go along with this deal seemed foreign to Carlin, who from the beginning talked about "what you will be approving today" -- as if the votes were already lined up and his job was just to instruct the puppets so they understand what they're supposed to be doing.

Among the items the commission "would be approving:" a change in the environmental findings related to design changes that, by the way, might make the sewage problem worse. The PUC staff found that the changes would have no impact on the environment; that finding came two days before the sewage report arrived.

And, of course, as land-use lawyer Sue Hestor noted, the environmental documents alone are 125 pages. "When did you get them, and when did you get a chance to read them," she asked. None of the commissioners answered.

In the end, there were no surprises -- Commissioner Ann Moller Caen made the motion to approve, Commissioner Anson Moran seconded, and on a voice vote, the deal was approved.

Now let me predict what's going to happen. Kelly and the PUC staff will negotiate with Snellgrove and come back and tell the commissioners that they still don't have the assurances they need, not really, but there's no choice any more because the PUC already voted to approve the environmental findings and the easements, and the developer has spent millions on design changes, and now it's too late to go back.

That's how things work in this city.

And when, as I predict, the voters kill this whole thing in November, the PUC is going to look foolish.