City building inspectors were poring over the wreckage of a Twin Peaks home Tuesday, trying to determine what caused the 72-year-old structure, which had been raised above its foundation, to partially break apart during a major remodeling and expansion effort vehemently opposed by neighbors.
The home at 125 Crown Terrace, which was unoccupied, had been lifted in a steel cradle so that a new foundation could be poured underneath it, said William Strawn, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Building Inspection. About 10:30 p.m. Monday, the house began to crumple, sending debris down the steep slope and forcing the evacuation of at least one neighboring home.
“Engineers for the owner think a weld in the cradle may have given way, allowing the house to rotate, but we’re still investigating,” Strawn said. “The main concern now is securing what’s left of the structure.”
The house has been red-tagged, which means it can’t be occupied. The owner and his engineers now have to decide whether what’s left of the home can be preserved or whether they need to apply for an emergency demolition permit, Strawn said.
There were no reports of injuries.
The home, built in 1941, is owned by Mel Murphy, 67, a partner in Murphy O’Brien Real Estate Investments. Murphy is a city port commissioner and a director of the Coalition for Responsible Growth, a political advocacy group funded largely by developers and others with real estate interests.
Tuesday morning found the small, wooden home lopsided and tilted on the hillside above Graystone Terrace, which had been blocked off by police. Chunks of wood were scattered around the front of the home, and the back was a muddy mess of split boards and debris.
The possible emergency demolition of the damaged structure could be a surprising end to a long-running neighborhood dispute. The home, which was built on a hillside below the level of narrow, winding Crown Terrace, was the focus of a bitter six-year battle to turn what was a small, two-story rental home of about 1,400 square feet of habitable space into a modern showplace of at least 4,200 square feet for Murphy and his family.
City planners in 2007 denied Murphy’s request to demolish the building, citing San Francisco’s ban on destruction of affordable rental housing. A few years later, the project morphed into a “remodel,” with Rodrigo Santos, a structural engineer hired by Murphy, insisting that “around 90 percent of existing foundations and walls will remain in place.”
Neighbors complained that the size of the proposed home at the end of the cul-de-sac was wildly out of proportion with adjoining homes and that the proposed remodeling was little more than a fig leaf for the demolition that was denied.
Stephen Williams, an attorney who represented neighbors upset by the renovation, said he had complained to city planning officials that the project was a “fantasy about alterations” and that the work “couldn’t be accomplished in the manner it was being promoted,” before the project was approved.
“We were ignored,” Williams said.
Three neighbors took their objections to the City Planning Commission in October 2012, but the commission approved the project on a 5-2 vote. The neighbors challenged that decision to the city’s Board of Appeal in March, but the board voted 3-2 to issue the required building permit.
The long-running dispute had left the aging home in what even its owner admitted was “general disrepair.” A 2012 response to neighborhood concerns said Murphy still “believes that permission to demolish the existing building and build new, rather than remodel and expand the existing building, would be less disruptive, safer and take less time.”
Two gardeners said the Crown Terrace house looked to be in bad condition, even before it collapsed.
Alex Brown, 28, and Andrew Sieving, 25, had for months been working on the yard next door and said the house always had an abandoned feel about it.
“For the past couple months, it was pretty covered in vines and blackberry brambles,” Sieving said. “It’s pretty blighted and it’s been abandoned for a while now.”
Brown, who also does construction work, said the front floor had been “all punched in” and said it looked like the construction workers had been trying to put in supports under the floor before its collapse.
“For me, looking at the wear on the material, it doesn’t surprise me that the floor crumbled and all that,” Brown said. “It just looks like the building gave in and the floor caved in when they were putting in supports.”
Williams, an attorney for the neighbors, called the incident a “disaster. It’s a miracle someone wasn’t hurt, that the building didn’t slide down the hill and land on a dog-walker or a fancy car.”
Murphy has been a well-known developer and figure around City Hall for years. Born in Ireland, he has lived in San Francisco since the 1970s. He was appointed to the city’s Building Inspection Commission by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2006 and served for six years, including two terms as the commission’s president.
While a building inspection commissioner, Murphy hosted a fundraiser for Ed Lee’s mayoral campaign in 2011 at his home. Lee’s campaign was forced to return seven contributions, totaling $2,150, from Department of Building Inspection employees at the event, because city law prohibits commissioners from soliciting city employees for campaign contributions.
Lee appointed Murphy to the Port Commission in March.
Murphy’s development career hasn’t been without controversy. Earlier this year, building inspection officials ordered a halt to a five-story residential building that Murphy was constructing in the Mission District after questions were raised as to whether he had obtained the proper permits and paid the full amount for the permit he did have. Murphy’s company later paid $167,833 for a construction permit.