The notions of luxury condos and torrents of raw sewage do not exactly jibe. Nor does the idea of the residents of those condos -- and the city -- being on the hook for said fetid rivers.
But that was the picture painted by Supervisor David Chiu today during a provocative hearing regarding the 8 Washington condo tower's proposed construction just a yard from a sewer line pumping 20 million gallons of waste daily. That effluent is generated by 375,000 city residents and represents about a quarter of the city's sewage. You do not want that coming out of the pipe.
Chiu -- an outspoken opponent of the development -- alleged that he and his colleagues on the board were willfully kept in the dark about engineering concerns regarding the proximity of the proposed structure to the century-old sewage line. This, he says, was the case even as the supes were deliberating -- and ultimately approving -- the project.
"I do not have faith in the departments involved there has been an adequate investigation here," Chiu said. "I think there was information that people knew that should have been disclosed. I have e-mails and letters to show that. Staffers were either told or decided to keep that information to themselves at great risk to the public. I have a problem with that."
In leading the hearing, Chiu's soft-spoken but aggressively worded questions resembled those of the prosecutor he once was.
Querying Public Utilities Commission Deputy General Manager Michael Carlin, Chiu asked who would be liable for the breach of a sewage tunnel carrying 20 million gallons of rancid material a day (Chiu repeatedly emphasized this vast quantity of "human waste" and the specter of it flowing down the Embarcadero).
"If the developer built the project as-is and sold all 134 condos, wouldn't the owners pick up some, if not all of the liability?" Chiu asked. Carlin seemed to agree with this, leading Chiu to muse "So the [developer] can make a half a billion dollars and walk away?"
Spotting developer Simon Snellgrove in the audience, Chiu directed his questions into the crowd, referring to Snellgrove as "Mr. Developer." The board president noted he hoped to query "Mr. Developer" about "your [construction] decision which will lead to additional risks to the city in the event of an earthquake."
When Snellgrove submitted to Chiu's grilling, the supe asked him "are you willing to assume liability [for the sewage line] during an earthquake? Certainly during construction, but afterward?"
Snellgrove noted that once the units were sold, the liability would no longer be his. "So," Chiu asked slowly, "You get to walk away?" The developer took umbrage with this. "I don't walk away," he countered. The condo owners would be part of a homeowners' association, which would be insured, and liability would fall upon them.
At this point, the voices of noisy protesters in the hallway unrelated to the hearing streamed into the room. Chiu, in a moment of levity, said "Don't worry, Simon. They're not coming for you."
But Chiu was.
He went on to note he feels "very sorry" for the future condo owners who may be left holding a multi-million dollar bag if the sewage line ruptures -- and doubted that this was a "deep enough pocket" to stave off the possibility of the city picking up the tab. Speaking of deep pockets, Chiu noted that the state teachers' pension fund has invested $42 million (so far) in the 8 Washington project -- and wondered if they would be financially liable as well. He speculated that a further hearing -- or hearings -- may be necessary, in which representatives of the pension fund could be asked where they'd come up with the money if such a scenario came to pass.
Chiu and his colleagues couldn't hide their irritation that engineering concerns about the 8 Washington project didn't reach their ears until months after they'd voted on the project. And, based on the edge in city officials' voices as they answered accusatory questions, the irritation was mutual.
A sequel seems inevitable. Nothing goes with rivers of sewage like oceans of bile.