125 Crown Terrace post Collapse
125 Crown Terrace post Collapse

City Attorney Dennis Herrera has just filed suit against the former president of San Francisco’s Building Inspection Commission, and current Port Commissioner, Mel Murphy.

An investigation spurred by the collapse of a Murphy’s hillside home at 125 Crown Terrace back in 2013 has uncovered “a far-reaching pattern of unlawful business practices and rampant violations of building, housing and safety codes.”  And the civil complaint filed in San Francisco Superior Court alleges that the longtime real estate developer “knowingly flouted state and local laws at three development projects in San Francisco, and repeatedly failed to disclose his ownership of an illegally-developed four-unit Alabama Street property in the Mission District.”

“Mel Murphy flouted the very same laws he was charged with enforcing on the Building Inspection Commission, and he did so persistently for a number of years,” Herrera said. “Murphy’s actions make plain that his unlawful practices were willful and, more seriously, an egregious betrayal of the public trust. With my office’s lawsuit today, we are moving aggressively to penalize Commissioner Murphy’s wrongdoing, and send a clear message to private developers and public officials alike that there will be a steep price to pay for this kind of lawlessness in San Francisco.”

Herrera’s complaint alleges that Murphy illegally converted a two-dwelling project at 1346 Alabama Street to four residential rental units; performed extensive building, plumbing, and electrical work without the requisite inspections and approvals; and shorted permit fees by tens of thousands of dollars.

Murphy was a building inspection commissioner between 2006 and 2012, the Commission’s president from late 2009 to early 2011, and has been a port commissioner since 2013.  Murphy’s wife, who shares ownership and involvement in Murphy’s businesses, has been named in the suit as well.

65 thoughts on “S.F. Suing Former Building Inspection President Mel Murphy”
  1. Emphasis on Public Officials and their abuse of power. I would go further and investigate all of the building permits which were questionably held up during the period Mr. Murphy was in tenure and the City should return those excess fees to the owners and/or developers.

  2. Murphy has been the head of all that corruption down at the DBI for years. About time they locked him up.

  3. Dennis Herrera is the closest San Francisco has to an actual hero. We’re very lucky to have him as our City Attorney.

    1. I agree. It’s because of Herrera that that rogue certifying commission did not succeed in closing City College. Lee did nothing, a shameful abdication of duty to the public interest.

  4. Probably too many too strict building codes. These too many too strict building codes has persuaded the head of building inspection to forego the inspections.

    Fault should also be placed on the too many too strict building codes which become the nightmare for SF homeowners. The real culprit is the SF politicians. Head of building inspection is only doing the job dictated by those SF politicians who do not understand building but nonetheless placed too many too strict building codes onto citizens.

    When you have too many too strict building codes, even the head of building inspection was confused and can not tell which one is important and which is trivial.

      1. Most of the Bayview is on bay fill, and the lack of “too strict” building codes when the neighborhood was built may mean we don’t hear from Bayview SF any more after the Big One.

    1. Get real; the house collapsed and slid down the hill — obviously that wasn’t a trivial building code. Mel is always pushing the envelope and now it has caught up to him.

  5. While City Attorney Herrera’s at it, can he give us an update on the litigation regarding the Academy of Art University’s continuing illegal development projects?

    1. I read this over at the Bold Italic in late February and haven’t heard anything since:

      “On February 25, AAU is expected to finally present a draft EIR. The report will include an analysis of expansion, plans for legalizing university-owned properties converted without proper zonal codes, and details of shuttle expansion. ‘It is quite complicated and complex given its nature, but it sounds like they’re getting things to the publishers today and I have every bit of confidence they’ll get it in next week,’ Sanchez [zoning administrator for the Planning Department] told me. A public hearing will follow on April 16, with public comments remaining in consideration until April 27.”

  6. Bayview SF, WTF? It is not trivial to double the number of units on a property without a permit. It is also not trivial AT ALL to so mismanage a project (a “renovation”) that a building falls down and comes close to doing serious damage to other properties.

    1. Methinks Bayview should move to a small city in Texas. Next to the fertilizer plant. Texans know what to do with meddlesome “building inspectors” and their communist-Muslim building codes!

    2. I did not really read all the details on what the former building inspection head do.

      However, one of the reasons for SF’s high housing price is the super strict building code. If the building code was not so strict and expensive, maybe he would have applied for permit? What’s the benefit to do it without permit if it is not expensive and not super hard?

      1. Bayview, your reasoning is so flawed that I must comment. There are any number of comments I could make, but here are a few reasons for building codes as they exist in SF:

        San Francisco is in one of the most volatile seismic zones in the world; a significant percentage of our city is built on fill; SF is a very dense city so what happens in one residence often has profound effects on another residence; poorly built homes can kill people; we are running out of water; global warming, etc etc. Perhaps you can give the readers here some examples of “super strict” that you think is unreasonable, then go about changing the law if you think they are inappropriate. While the laws are on the books, they are meant to be followed until the citizens decide to change the law (provided the changes are constitutional), IMO. That is how a civilized society functions.

      2. Most of the SF was built before all these super strict building rules. How many of the houses collapsed?

        Citizens are not building expert. Even the DBI workers are so confused by the rules, do you think SF has the best building code to ensure that SF will produce least amount of housing and drive the newcomers to east bay?

        1. SF lost 28,000 buildings in the 1906 quake and hundreds died. As recently as 1989 SF had many buildings fail and people die. We also had key segments of the water and gas lines break in 1989. A very dangerous condition that made putting out the fire in the Marina much more difficult. If that fire had been inland where the fireboat couldn’t have helped…

          We learned from the 1994 Northridge quake that we needed even more/stricter rules. There is a massive program underway to seismically upgrade thousands of hazardous buildings in SF, including schools and the hall of justice/jail on Bryant.

          The irregular enforcement, the ease with which Murphy and others flout the rules, and the disdain all of that creates are much bigger problems than overly strict rules.

        2. Do you think that a demolition and a brand new building will be safer than a remodel and expansion?

          Here is Murphy’s response in 2012:
          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.”

          1. I have too much respect for the complexities of structural engineering on steep slopes in seismic zones to form an opinion based on what I can gather over the Internet.

            We have a process to make these decisions and we pay professionals to make them. Murphy should know the process, rules, and the professionals well enough to get an outcome that is safe for everyone. We know that what he built collapsed. We’ll see if there is an accounting for it.

          2. Why not let people demolish the crumbling old structure and build a brand new building which is safer, better and costs less time and money?

            Imho, SF city is forcing citizens to live in the old and less safe structures. Will the city pay for all the damages caused by its refusal to allow people to demolish the old building and build new?

            People will pay for the demolition and rebuilding on their own, no taxpayer assistance needed.

          3. Do away with the ability of neighbor input — waste of time and drives up costs. Building inspectors should only take into account the engineering and structural safety of a home. There should be no input about architectural styles and/or other “soft” discretionary concerns.

          4. AFAIK, the rules are supposed to guarantee whatever is built is safe at a minimum.
            Aren’t you concerned that one of the most politically connected developers in SF may have intentionally and illegally collapsed a building in a residential neighborhood? That there is little doubt the work was not done to code and that the permits may have been filed with incorrect information?
            This is a port commissioner and former head of building inspection with a history of violations that many suspect nearly got someone killed to a make more profit on a building.
            How lame is it to be whining on and on about the rules, when one of the rulers flouts them in all of our faces?

          5. “City planners in 2007 denied Murphy’s request to demolish the building, citing San Francisco’s ban on destruction of affordable rental housing.”

            Both the city and the neighbors are real wrongdoers. The elected corrupted politicians and the vocal troublesome NIMBY neighbors should be responsible for the collapse as well. The “affordable rental housing” advocates should be responsible as well.

          6. Activists are breaking rules every day. Why not hold activists accountable as well?

          7. “AFAIK, the rules are supposed to guarantee whatever is built is safe at a minimum.” How? By requiring people to keep old crumbling building as “affordable rental housing” using “San Francisco’s ban on destruction of affordable rental housing”?

          8. To your growing list of all those not named Mel Murphy who are responsible for Mel Murphy’s failures may as well add his nanny and wet nurse. If only they had not refused so many of his requests little Mel may not have developed such a habit of seeking the greater good by any means. At least he does it with a charming smile.

          9. I live in the Alabama street house, and after several months we realized several aspects of our apartment were not seemingly “to code.”. Over time we realized the safety issues involved with the improper ventilation, shotty plumbing and the annoyances of poor insulation and build quality. We requested to have our unit updated and got no response. By this time, rent had increased 30% in the area and the cost to move was too high. Its a shame someone can abuse their power for their own financial gain. Interested to see how this plays out, considering I live in the epicenter.

  7. Actually he did apply for the permit so apparently he was confident he can pass building inspections, maybe because he was the head of building inspection. How corrupt is our government?

    He said that construction cost is 60k though it was 1.57M. Reason must be to save permit fees.

    “Developer Mel Murphy, the former president of the Building Inspection Commission, blames the collapse on a steel beam failure between the three supports and contends the additional six towers were to be put in place the next day, according to the Chronicle.” So the collapse was due to mismanagement if he told the truth.

  8. That’s a start, but why hasn’t our DA filed criminal charges. Oh, never mind. I just answered my own question.

    1. Because in less you can prove an intentional act of a crime (not just being sloppy not just breaking an administrative code), then you cannot charge a crime. It is pretty rare in any jurisdiction to hear of any D.A. prosecuting for someone for breaking a planning or building code, absent someone being killed by it. Try finding all the building code cases any D.A. in any city or county in the entire country prosecuted, it would be a very short list.

      Also, I think most people in the city would rather the DA focused on prosecuting violent criminals and thieves, etc., as it is many of these people just get processed through the system and end up right back out on the street.

      We have a planning department that can deal with code violations, it is a waste of the DA’s office to get involved.

  9. all they’re doing is moving him to the other side of the counter. now he’ll be a permit expediter or code consultant. probably end up as a lobbyist for the big developers.

    if you got game and know the system, there’s always a place for you.

    what do you wanna bet her keeps his pension and at least one year of insurance for his family?

  10. People say that the purpose of the super strict permit system is to extort permit fees, inspection fees from the homeowners.

    How much permit and inspection fees will be required for the same construction in SF vs Phoenix? I guess you can use SF’s permit/inspection fees to buy the same house in Phoenix.

    1. Bayview, unless you’re just interested in seeing your words appear on the internet, your time would be much better spent getting educated instead of spewing ignorance on the comment boards. You obviously have much to learn about building codes and their purpose. Why spend time advertising your ignorance when you could be learning? Please, write less and read more.

    2. If the rules are so complicated and no one understands, maybe it is the time to simplify the rules. Do you like your city’s building and planning codes to be as complicated as tax law? Our time and energy is better spent on productive things instead of creating cumbersome rules to make it super difficult to build housing in SF.

      1. the icc who makes the guideline code then city’s modify them are 100% government bureaucrats the last meeting i read the roster there is no rep from building trades, engineering firms, architects and definatly no consumers. and much of citys modifications are for protecting union jobs.so no wonder the codes are confusing and conflicting. and zoning is done often to extract the most tax from the property as possible. affordable homes to government is a oxymoron they only talk affordable but unless another gov (fed)is paying for it the city’s want housing to be as expensive as possible to collect the most revenue

  11. Let Mr. Murphy counter sue and take the whole thing to trial so it can shed some light into the inner workings of the DBI with its contradictory rules, who gets to follow them and who doesn’t, and how some things are enforced and not. Peel back the layers of bureaucracy. It will be one interesting trial much like Ellen Pao and Kleiner Perkins. The “rules” are laid threadbare and the real change happens after the case is over.

    1. How about a class action lawsuit from all SF homeowners for the ridiculous permit/inspection fees, contradictory rules and selective enforcement? If some rules does not make sense, the correct action is to simplify the rules to only the necessary for safety, it is a crime to over-burden homeowners and use corruption to get around of some nonsense building rules.

      1. If a class action is what it takes to redo the entire building code into something than can be easily understood even to a layperson and get rules properly enforced, then let it happen. Instead of spending the time, money, and expense to make a fancy flowchart to make parklets, it should have been used to sort out the mess of building codes. It is always easier to pass the buck and divert attention away from the real problems. Best part of an adversarial system is finding the truth.

    2. Enforcement of code will always be inconsistent and capricious and it has nothing to do with corruption. The inspectors just don’t have enough time to check each and every thing. I recently found a pair of loose live wires in my wall that passed inspection. I’m not blaming the inspector but am pissed at the electrician who should have known better.

    1. I guess it is still legal to build a house in SF after all. Per his explanation, he installed 3 supports and planned to install another 6 supports the next day, but it collapsed before the additional 6 supports were installed. Assume that was true, was it the construction company’s fault? The owner can not control how the construction company does the construction job.

      The collapse was not related to approved plan or permit. So I assume that it is perfectly ok to restart the construction according to the issued plans and permits, probably after getting money from insurance company.

      As a politician and public employee, Murphy should be held upon a high standard of ethics. But regarding the construction project, it is a legal and it will add housing we need. If Murphy has trouble in building it, he can always sell it to a capable developer.

  12. Murphy wanted to demolish the old house and build new, was denied. He changed to “remodel” instead of “demolition and build new”, got approved. With this collapse, apparently it will be finally demolished.

    Was the collapse a calculated “natural” demolition?

    Is the city’s denial of demolition request in the beginning a contributing factor? Maybe he was pretending to do a “remodel” and the pretended “remodel” was a risky process than a clean demolition and rebuild?

    “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.”

    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.”

    1. The law does not support speculative damages. The attorney for the neighbors knows better. Fact of the matter is there are no damages sustained by the neighbors. In fact, it was a nice controlled demolition of an otherwise questionable house.

  13. meshow Rank 11874
    only in SF could a house assessed as 854 s.f. with an assessed land + structure value of $924,794 – with all the curb appeal of a plywood box on top of a rat’s nest – be held up as ‘affordable housing’.

  14. In any case, the “San Francisco Building Code” is actually “Title 24, California Code of Regulations. California Building Code (CBC)” with a few local amendments and the “Title 24, California Code of Regulations. California Building Code (CBC)” is actually the “International Building Code” with a few state level tweaks and amendments.

    Honestly, as an Architect looking through all of these tiresome documents for many years, I have often noted how the San Francisco version is actually more lenient than the up stream versions in many respects, simply because it must account for the reality of the SF build environment. We have thousands of wood frame buildings often with zero setback at side property lines that simply wouldn’t fly elsewhere.

    If the SF code is stricter it is simply when you go to a chart, like the seismic zone chart and see that we are in a more active zone than say Turlock and so stiffer requirements apply. But then they also apply for Oakland, Berkeley and other places in a high seismic activity zone…

    1. Does California and International building codes forbid people to demolish the old crumbling building and build a new house? Where did this come from?

      “City planners in 2007 denied Murphy’s request to demolish the building, citing San Francisco’s ban on destruction of affordable rental housing.”

  15. I live right around the corner from this property. The original house was completely neglected and abandoned. The lot was overgrown with blackberry bushes. It was like a haunted house. Anyway this rickety old house was suspended in mid air during which an extensive and complicated concrete foundation was built during which time many workers as well as machinery were working beneath the suspended old house. The house fell on a sunday night about an hours after I was walking my dog checking up on progress. I think that the city is irresponsible requiring people to suspend houses in mid air work around them an run the risk of having it fall on someone (most likely a worker) in order to preserve affordable housing. Does anyone in the city think that someone building remodeling a house up to 5120 square feet is doing so in the interests of the poor. This is an embarrassment, stupid, and dangerous to boot.

    [Editor’s Note: A Game Of Remodeling Jenga: Before The Collapse.]

    1. Exactly! Even the nosyneighbor is thinking that the city is at fault first. Maybe Murphy can counter sue the city planner? This accident is a perfect warning to SF politicians. Allow people to demolish old structures and build new houses. No one wants the risk, cost and liability of “suspend old houses in mid air and remodel the foundation”. It is a crime to burden the poor homeowners unnecessarily.

        1. No, BayviewSF’s arguments have been consistent. Maybe you don’t like the position. You can kill 1000 messengers but the message remains the same.

          Mr. Murphy’s problems simply shed light on bigger and more serious concerns about building codes, the city’s repeated attempts to interject where it does not belong making things run more cumbersome and often acrimoniously than necessary.

  16. Yes, our planning/building codes are ridiculous.

    But it’s impossible to argue that this is anything but a good start. ESPECIALLY against someone so well connected.

  17. I feel like the City is trying to wash its sins by throwing one of its own under the bus.

    After all this disaster seems to be the direct consequence of the overreaching meddling of the City into the people’s business. Someone wants a new house, and it’s going to be expensive. Why this “preservation of affordable housing” BS?

    Now the owner is probably not the cleanest developer. After all, in a city of ridiculously overreaching regulation and random enforcement, who else would be more likely to bend the rules? But the City going after him is deeply hypocritical and reeks of sacrificing the weakened one to have the crowds feel justice is being served…

  18. Most of you are confusing planning codes with building codes. And I don’t understand why anyone would defend this corrupt ex-official who used to make sure others followed the rules regardless of how arcane they were then turned around and sidestepped whichever rules didn’t suit him.

    The City didn’t purposefully install the under-pinning to collapse, Murphy did (or had the contractor do). You don’t install 50% of the require structure and call it a day. You install temporary structure as necessary. This was not a happy accident.

    This is a simple case of corruption. Nothing more. Nothing less. He deserves all the penalties he gets, and probably much more. It’s one thing to install an un-permitted bathroom or car lift. It’s another thing to purposefully let a house slide down a hill in a residential neighborhood.

  19. My position stands – let this thing air out in public @ trial. Civil case means a lot of depositions. Then we can put together a real flowchart about the inner workings of the mayor’s office, DBI, City planners, etc. Spring cleaning. If the City wants its rules followed, then put credibility back into its departments. Perception is reality. If Ed Lee wants my vote, earn it!

  20. there was a cabal of these dudes. Irish and Irish-American guys, cutting every corner. Some of them got busted, some didn’t. Their cruddy, corners cutting work remains. All over town.

  21. I am not a builder, architect, or r.e. agent. I am civilian, in other words. And from the outside, all this justification for not following the rules sounds like people outraged that the law is preventing them from making a buck exactly the way they want to make a buck. It is, in other words, an entitled justification for breaking the law.

    I believe that the law applies to the entitled, the rich, and the strivers, in the same way it applies to ordinary folk. If you break the law, you should be punished. All this whining reveals the bad character of the whiners. Get over it. If this were an illegal bathroom I would not take such a hard line. But this collapse could have killed someone. That means the ones responsible should be prosecuted to the full extent.

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