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Built as one of the tallest and most luxurious residential high-rise buildings in the country, Millennium Tower in San Francisco has gained fame for something far less flattering. The 58-story building is the site of one of the most expensive construction retrofits in history.

As with other San Francisco high-rise buildings, the foundation of the Millennium Tower rests on a deep layer of sandy soil, just above the “Old Bay Clay.” A ten-foot-thick foundational slab is secured to the ground by over 900 friction piles driven to a depth of 80 feet. By all accounts, this foundation should have been more than adequate to support the weight of the tower.

Several inches of settling is normal for a project of this size, but as the weight of the massive building compressed the soil beneath it, unanticipated events caused that settling to increase, albeit unevenly, resulting in a slight tilt to one corner.

Despite the media’s portrayal of alarming defects, the building was never evacuated and was always determined by the San Francisco Department of Building Inspections and Millennium Towers Structural Engineers to be structurally sound. Concern was warranted, however, as speculation swirled that the tilt may become even more pronounced over time. As a result, market values declined.

Given the magnitude of the needed repairs, complex litigation seemed inevitable. With over 50 parties and their lawyers each pursuing their own interests, the legal process threatened to drag on for years.

The actual goal, it seemed, was not to seek common ground and solve the problem, but to make the proceedings as adversarial as possible and thereby maximize billable hours. At one point over 150 lawyers filled a courtroom. The introductions alone took 45 minutes of billable time to complete.

Insurance settlement funds were gradually shrinking due to the mounting legal fees. Two years into the process, Howard Dickstein decided it was time to become more actively involved. He, along with a slate of other homeowners in the building, ran for election to the HOA’s Board of Directors. The entire team was elected based on their promise to solve legal and construction problems.

One of the newly elected board’s first moves was to replace the HOA’s legal team with a new firm that would now work on a contingency basis rather than an hourly basis, thus aligning the interests of the lawyers with those of the HOA.

HOA board member Joel Piser credits Dickstein with finding the right legal team to represent the homeowners. “He reset the clock by getting the right attorneys on board,” he said, citing Dickstein’s legal background as the reason the new, and much more effective, firm was selected.

The previous two years had been marked by adversarial relationships between several of the parties. Under the board’s new leadership, animosity was replaced by a more collaborative spirit with a focus on finding common ground.

Millennium Tower

Animosity was replaced by a more collaborative spirit with a focus on finding common ground.

As a lawyer himself, Dickstein has spent his career negotiating agreements between disputing parties, and his experience proved to offer exactly the kind of leadership the Millennium Tower needed.

After two years of impasse, the new board was able to right the ship in only a year and a half. The solution was two-fold. During the negotiations phase, it adopted a reasonable attitude that focused on solving the problem instead of exacerbating the conflict. Secondly, the board kept a close eye on every detail of the construction phase. Dickstein estimates that over nearly five years, he spent an average of two hours a day in his role as HOA Board President managing both the litigation and the construction.

Said Dickstein, “Sometimes things don’t go according to plan, but that doesn’t always mean you turn on those responsible. You work through it. It’s all about hiring the right people and keeping in close contact.”

With that mindset in place and a collaborative effort of some of the world’s greatest engineering and construction minds, one of the most significant structural challenges of our time has become one of the most significant success stories of all time.

The Millennium Tower is now able to celebrate the successful completion of its $100 million engineering upgrade, which involved the installation of 18 concrete piles that anchor the building to bedrock below ground. The upgrade effectively stopped the building from titling and sinking. Current analyses show a recovery of nearly one inch of tilt, which will continue in the coming months and years.

“We are confident that the engineering upgrade will restore our building’s reputation and the value of the condominiums while putting to rest any lingering questions about the tower’s stability,” said Dickstein.

What made this project particularly unique, however, was not the complex engineering, but rather, it was the commitment made by the HOA Board to present a unified front throughout the process. Even when inevitable disagreements came up, dissenting board members were willing to set aside personal preferences for the greater good of the community. As a result, every decision made throughout the process was unanimously affirmed.

Given the new approach advocated by this board, the Millennium Tower HOA was able to foster a spirit of cooperation that shaved years off what could have been a very costly legal process with uncertain results. Litigation was replaced by the construction of a modern-day engineering marvel — a solution that is widely embraced.