Trapped at the Pinnacle of Luxury: Life at the Top of S.F.'s Leaning Tower

Millennium Tower resident Pamela Buttery putts golf balls as they roll in the direction of the tower’s lean. (Stephanie Martin Taylor/KQED)

Pamela Buttery was about 70 years old when she decided it was time to say goodbye to her house in Monterey County.

"Big home, lots of work," she explains.

She also wanted to live near her son in San Francisco, who has disabilities that prevent him from driving. So, in 2010, Buttery bought a brand-new condominium on the Millennium Tower’s 57th floor. It had every amenity she could want: valet service, round-the-clock security guards and maintenance workers. She thought she would live here for the rest of her life.

“It sounds morbid, but I have a spare bedroom -- just for visitors at the moment -- but I thought that I could have somebody live there and take care of me when I get older," Buttery says. "I do not want to be a burden.”

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Buttery never dreamed her South of Market home in the Millennium Tower would be the burden. She was a real estate developer for several decades and thought she had made a shrewd investment in a premier property, for which she paid more than $3 million.

“State-of-the-art construction, state-of-the-art engineering,” Buttery sighs.

Data from the European Space Agency's Sentinel-1 satellites acquired between Feb. 22, 2015, and Sept. 20, 2016, show San Francisco's Millennium Tower (left center) sinking by as much as 2 inches a year, assuming no tilting.The colored dots represent targets observed by the radar. The color scale ranges from 1.6 inches a year away from radar (red) to 1.6 inches a year toward radar (blue). Green dots represent stable targets.
Data from the European Space Agency's Sentinel-1 satellites show San Francisco's Millennium Tower (left center) sinking by as much as 2 inches a year, assuming no tilting.The colored dots represent targets observed by the radar. The color scale ranges from 1.6 inches a year away from radar (red) to 1.6 inches a year toward radar (blue). Green dots represent stable targets. (European Space Agency)

Unfortunately, the skyscraper -- often referred to as the "Leaning Tower of San Francisco" -- has become notorious around the world. When I visit Buttery at her home, I see that it is leaning slightly to my left. I think that I must be imagining things. So, Buttery shows me with a golf ball. She gently tosses it toward the window. The ball slows down, spins, then turns to the left in the direction of the tower's lean.

“It’s going right for the corner,” I marvel. But I still don’t quite believe it. I pick up a another golf ball, and kneel on the floor to do my own experiment.

"I’m going to make it go to the right," I say. Normally, it would keep rolling right and then stop. Instead, the ball slows and spins.

"And there it goes back left again," I say. It lands in the same left corner, right next to the other ball.


It really doesn't take a do-it-yourself experiment to know that the Millennium Tower, which is located at the corner of Mission and Fremont streets, has a problem. Engineers on the ground estimate it's sinking about 1 inch a year. Satellite images from the European Space Agency show the skyscraper may actually be sinking at double that rate. It's also leaning roughly 6 inches to one side.

Millennium Tower developers insist the building remains safe. But Buttery can't stop thinking about various disasters that could happen. Like, this one: “The elevators stop working and I wake up one morning and I smell sewage or gas. And that scenario is before the city steps in and decides to condemn the building.”

“Ultimately, we're going to have to find a fix for this building," says San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin. "I am not yet confident that it is safe over the long term.”

Peskin is leading what is likely to be a long series of committee hearings trying to untangle who's to blame for the tower's troubles. Is it the developers? The city's building inspectors? The builders of the new Transbay Transit Center next door? All three?

Meantime, Buttery and her neighbors are deep in the muck of multiple lawsuits. This is not the peaceful retirement she had imagined. “Actually, I’ve moved on into depression about it," she says. "It’s a gloomy feeling.”

She would like to sell her place. “But nobody’s buying.”

In fact, one property did just sell: the penthouse, just above Buttery's condo. The tech executive who bought it told the Wall Street Journal that at $13 million it was "a good deal," and he's willing to take the risk for this home with the great view.

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And Buttery does have an undeniably spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean, the Giants ballpark and the Transamerica Pyramid. It's just that, when she put her money down, no one told her that the sweeping horizon would also be slightly off-kilter.

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