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Safety Fears at Aging San Leandro Condo Building

NBC Bay Area logo NBC Bay Area 1/14/2022 Candice Nguyen, Robert Campos, Jeremy Carroll and Michael Horn

Bay Area condominium owners in San Leandro say they’ve seen constant water leaks in the garage of their multi-story building for years, and after watching a high-rise apartment collapse in Surfside, Florida, they worry about their safety.  

Owners at the Pacific Plaza condominiums in San Leandro complained to NBC Bay Area that their Home Owner’s Association and property managers were not addressing the problems. When NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit started looking into the leak complaints, action was swift from city officials, and now questions are being raised about the safety of aging condos across the Bay Area.

Condo owners at Pacific Plaza in San Leandro worry that persistent water leaks in the slab above their parking lot will weaken their support structure of their building. © Provided by NBC Bay Area Condo owners at Pacific Plaza in San Leandro worry that persistent water leaks in the slab above their parking lot will weaken their support structure of their building.

The condominium owners led NBC Bay Area on a tour of their building last October. It had not rained for weeks at the time, and yet there were water leaks throughout the garage area.

Walking through the large parking garage area, which covers an entire city block at 1400 Carpentier Street in San Leandro, condo owner Wilson Nacario pointed to extensive leaks and even solidified drips of mineral buildup coming from the ceiling. “You can see all the way down - stalactites, cracks in the cement, this is what goes unaddressed,” said Nacario. 

Several condo owners told NBC Bay Area the leaks had been going on for years.  “It's been here since I first got here in 2013,” said Nacario.

Wilson Nacario pointed at long cracks from which he has seen persistent leaks for years. "It's been here since I first got here in 2013," said Nacario. © Provided by NBC Bay Area Wilson Nacario pointed at long cracks from which he has seen persistent leaks for years. "It's been here since I first got here in 2013," said Nacario.

The ceiling is sagging In Jami Gold’s unit, and she worries that moisture throughout the 164-condo building is the cause. “It shouldn't be doing this,” said Gold, as she stood on her couch and pushed up on the loose material.

NBC Bay Area obtained architectural plans for the Pacific Plaza condominiums. After reviewing those plans, Dawn Lehman, a structural and civil engineer, said the issues in the garage could cause real structural damage. 

It is something that really does need attention,” said Lehman, who teaches Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Washington. “The concrete itself can be deteriorated by constant water running through it, it can lose stiffness, it can lose strength, said Lehman.

Lehman also analyzed the collapse of the highrise complex near Miami, Florida, where residents had also complained about water leaks in the garage. An engineering report written several years before the collapse noted, “failed waterproofing is causing major structural damage to the concrete structural slab…” 

An aerial view of the site during a rescue operation of the Champlain Tower, which partially collapsed in Surfside, Florida, on July 1, 2021. © Provided by NBC Bay Area An aerial view of the site during a rescue operation of the Champlain Tower, which partially collapsed in Surfside, Florida, on July 1, 2021.

Lehman points out that a complete building failure is rare – but maintains that water intrusion can degrade a structure and make it unsafe for residents. She points to the McGuire building in Seattle, which had to be demolished when it was discovered that steel tension cables that supported the structure could corrode and fail. Ten years after it was built, the $32 million structure was torn down in stages. "If you see corrosion," said Lehman, "it's more extensive than what you can see. It will continue."  

Steady leaks in the garage ceiling at Pacific Plaza have hardened into "stalactites," icicle shaped structures that hang from the cracked concrete slab. © Provided by NBC Bay Area Steady leaks in the garage ceiling at Pacific Plaza have hardened into "stalactites," icicle shaped structures that hang from the cracked concrete slab.

Residents at Pacific Plaza say they have reported their concerns to their Home Owner’s Association, the Pacific Plaza Community Association, but say they were ignored until they contacted NBC Bay Area.

“I reached out because I wasn't getting any answers,” said Jami Gold, who is on the HOA Board herself. Because of her efforts to raise the water leakage problem before the Board, Jami Gold said, "I've been called or labeled the problem board member.”

Jami Gold pushes up on the sagging ceiling in her condo. She's concerned about moisture residents have seen throughout the complex. "Are they going to wait until a Florida happens?" said Gold, referring to the collapse of a high-rise building near Miami last year. © Provided by NBC Bay Area Jami Gold pushes up on the sagging ceiling in her condo. She's concerned about moisture residents have seen throughout the complex. "Are they going to wait until a Florida happens?" said Gold, referring to the collapse of a high-rise building near Miami last year.

After NBC Bay Area visited the San Leandro City Planning Office to inquire about the Pacific Plaza architectural plans, Michael Jeffery, San Leandro’s Chief Building Official inspected the property. He then sent the property management a messages saying “we did discover several areas where water is leaking through the slab in the parking garage … the pool and pump house are of concern, seems to be leaking and dripping through the slab as well. It looks as though this problem has existed for a while.”

After inspecting the Pacific Plaza condominiums, Jeffery advised the Homeowner's Association at the site to hire a structural engineer." The onus is on the owners and their association ," said Michael Jeffery, the Chief Building Official for the city of San Leandro. © Provided by NBC Bay Area After inspecting the Pacific Plaza condominiums, Jeffery advised the Homeowner's Association at the site to hire a structural engineer." The onus is on the owners and their association ," said Michael Jeffery, the Chief Building Official for the city of San Leandro.

Asked if the leaks could indicate a serious structural problem in the building, Jeffery said, “It could - and it could not. I would want to leave that to the to the structural engineers.”

Jeffery said he didn’t see any immediate safety issue during his visit, but he instructed the board to speed up hiring a structural engineer, and later notified NBC Bay Area that the HOA had selected an engineer to review the Pacific Plaza condos.

“That onus is back on the HOA members, the owners, their board, and they should factor in that these buildings are getting older and increase their maintenance procedures,” said Jeffery.

“I represent a lot of buyers and sellers at condos,” said Sam Pilli, a Bay Area real estate broker, “and there's a constant complaint, ‘I don't know where my HOA dues are being spent.’” To address the problem, Pilli developed an app called Zonzon, a communication platform that allows condo residents to connect with each other and track all the activities of their board and property managers.

As a real estate agent, Sam Pilli said he has often seen bad communication between condo owners and the Homeowner's Associations that maintain condo complexes. So, he created an app called Zonzon. "What our solution is really looking at doing is engage the rest of the community to collaborate with the board, rather than five members trying to handle the responsibility of one hundred people - involved all one hundred people ," he said. © Provided by NBC Bay Area As a real estate agent, Sam Pilli said he has often seen bad communication between condo owners and the Homeowner's Associations that maintain condo complexes. So, he created an app called Zonzon. "What our solution is really looking at doing is engage the rest of the community to collaborate with the board, rather than five members trying to handle the responsibility of one hundred people - involved all one hundred people ," he said.

Pilli said that an HOA board should be anticipating problems and fixing them before they become more difficult to repair, but instead, “They kick the can down the road as long as they can until it's too late because, part of it is also, the board does not want to increase their dues.

In a statement provided to NBC Bay Area, the Pacific Plaza Community Association said “While this seems to be a straightforward issue it is actually quite technical as neither the source or potential damage from the drips can (be) determined without professional investigation,” adding, ”the Association has retained its own structural engineer and preliminary indications point to the problem being one of waterproofing and not one of structural risk to the building." NBC Bay Area requested any documents supporting the statement that the problem was “not one of structural risk,” but the Association never responded. The Association denied they ostracized owners who complain and said it is investigating water leak complaints and expressed concern about publicity surrounding “undetermined problems on the property value of the homes.”  

“Their main concern should be the safety concerns, not the property value. Because if this building collapses, there’s nothing to buy,” said condo owner Chanel Rabb, “and there potentially could be lives lost.”

There’s no state legislation in California requiring cities to inspect aging condos, although some cities like San Francisco do regular inspections. Condo law experts tell us, homeowner’s associations are ultimately responsible for all maintenance and repair, and while some HOA’s think their job is to keep costs low – they really need to focus on spending money to maintain buildings and ensure they’re safe. City planners warn that many condominium complexes across the Bay Area, built decades ago, could need major structural repairs if they have not been maintained.

Candice Nguyen is an investigative reporter with NBC Bay Area. Contact her about this story or another at candice.nguyen@nbcuni.com.

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