How on earth did a dangerously tall building get built so close to an airport? Seriously, how was this allowed to happen?
The Sunroad Centrum 12 office tower stands, right now, at 180 feet, 20 feet above the level of safety set by the Federal Aviation Administration for a building less than a mile from an airport, in this case Montgomery Field. The FAA calls the building a hazard, and it said so last April, before construction had reached 180 feet. Sunroad, a real-estate and management company, said it would lower the height of the building. Then it built it to 180 feet, anyway.
And when the FAA says it's a hazard, that means a change to flight paths for takeoffs and landings-and there's still a risk.
"The building is dangerous," said Ian Gregor, an FAA spokesperson. And that's even with the flight-path adjustments. Plus, it can't be so good for future occupants in the building, now can it? People probably wouldn't be so excited to have a Cessna burst in on their board meeting, now would they?
The Sunroad project dates back at least to 1997, but it doesn't enter the FAA part of the tale until 2005, when the Kearny Mesa Community Planning Group got a chance to review the project. The building lay outside the land-use plan of the airport (called the Airport Influence Area), so no one, including the city's Department of Development Services (DSD), gave any thought to flight-path hazards.
"Everybody missed it," said Buzz Gibbs, who chairs the planning group. "Just a tremendous oversight."
Still, it's not the planning group's job to know such things. Outside of the airport's sphere of influence, it's not even the city's job. Kelly Broughton, DSD assistant director, said the department followed procedure.
The FAA established rules in 2000 to determine who should be worrying about flight paths, and when. To build within 20,000 feet of Montgomery Field, developers have to check in with the FAA. And they're supposed to do it 30 days before construction begins or before they receive a building permit, whichever is earlier.
Well, Sunroad got a permit to build a foundation and a frame for the tower in March 2006. It started actual work soon thereafter. The company didn't notify the FAA until April 4.
"Sunroad did not file for aeronautical study in a timely manner," Gregor said.
Still, the building hadn't yet been built, so the problem could have been fixed when the FAA declared the building a hazard on April 24.
"You can imagine how shocked [we] were," said Karen Hutchens, a spokesperson for Sunroad Enterprises. "Going through two to three years of permitting this building at 180 feet."
In that sentence, find Sunroad's defense to all criticism, from the public, elected officials and City Attorney Mike Aguirre's civil lawsuit demanding that Sunroad dismantle the top two floors: The city of San Diego, which has all land-use authority, permitted the building at 180 feet.
Which is true, as far as it goes. The city has ultimate land-use authority-not the FAA and not the San Diego Regional Airport Authority. The Sunroad building was not in the Montgomery Field land-use-plan area, so the city did not think to check with the FAA. However, it's not the city's job to check with the FAA; it was Sunroad's job, Gregor said. And, truly, the city did provide a permit for a foundation and frame of 180 feet in March, before the FAA had made any determination, but well after when Sunroad should have notified the FAA for a permit. The city would later provide another permit on July 7 that allowed Sunroad to do interior work, like hang drywall. Hutchens says the permit confirms that the city gave its blessing to the project. This is the foundation for Sunroad's countersuit against the city for $40 million.
Jim Waring, Mayor Jerry Sanders' chief deputy for land use and economic development, views the July permit as "not legally significant." He regrets that neither DSD nor the City Attorney's office pressed harder at that stage to halt construction and get control of the situation.
"We missed opportunities to fix this," he told CityBeat.
Asked why Sunroad didn't just reduce the height of the building after it learned in April of the hazard, Hutchens said, "Because the building was designed for 180 feet. It isn't like you can lop off 20 feet." Why not?
"The air conditioning and all the mechanical equipment is on top," she said. "While you're under construction you'd have to redesign the building."
Or, to translate, it would have been expensive.
In any event, in its state of shock last April, Sunroad opted to go head-to-head with the FAA rather than shrink the building. The company hired aviation experts to review the data. Sunroad filed new paperwork in June that said it would build only to 160 feet. Then the experts' aviation-study results arrived.
"They said they felt there isn't a problem with this being at 180 feet, and they gave explicit reasons why," Hutchens said. "The building is safe."
So Sunroad built to 180 feet anyway, and the FAA, after Sunroad filed paperwork for a third time in August, said it was still a hazard, no matter what the company or its experts say. But while judges will happily lower the height of a planned building, they rarely, if ever, order the shortening of a building that already exists. Perhaps getting the building up was Sunroad's top priority.
The Sunroad story has a million spiral arms out of this timeline: Aguirre's attempt to search Sunroad vice president Tom Story's offices; Aguirre's prosecution of Story on misdemeanor charges of violating the city's lobbying laws; the civil suit; even a theory that the Sunroad project is the opening salvo in an attempt to close down Montgomery Field (Sanders spokesperson Fred Sainz, Airport Authority official Angela Shafer-Payne, Gibbs and Gregor all told CityBeat that no such discussion is going on in their offices).
The result of the lawsuit will determine the fate of more than just this one building: Sunroad Enterprises has plans on hold to erect 14- and 20-story towers as part of the same development. But right now, at this moment, there's a 180-foot tower jutting into the air space of a local airport, where airplanes on a stormy day might fly too low. Future Sunroad workers might want to make sure they know the locations of all emergency exits.
A not-so-sunny road: A timeline of events
June 2005 Kearny Mesa Community Planning Group approves Sunroad Centrum project. Letter from city to planning group makes no mention of airport concerns
March 27, 2006 City provides Sunroad with framing and foundation permits for 180-foot building. Sunroad begins construction on the building immediately
April 4, 2006 Sunroad files first FAA notification
April 24, 2006 FAA says building is too tall and poses a hazard
June 27, 2006 Sunroad tells the FAA it has lowered the height of the building to 160 feet; FAA says hazard has been eliminated
July 7, 2006 City provides Sunroad with a second permit, for tenant-service work like hanging drywall.
Aug. 11, 2006 Sunroad decides its own safety study is better than FAA determination, raises height of building again; FAA reinstates hazard notice; CityBeat editor Dave Rolland celebrates a birthday
Nov. 4, 2006 City orders Sunroad to stop work on project
Dec. 15, 2006 City Attorney Mike Aguirre files a lawsuit to force Sunroad to lower the building's height
December 2006 City staff allows Sunroad to "weatherize" the building; Sunroad takes it as invitation to continue work on the building
Jan. 22, 2006 Caltrans sends a letter to Sunroad saying its building is in violation of state utility codes
Feb. 12, 2007 Sunroad counter-sues the city, demanding $40 million since a stop-work order forced a delay in completion
March 30, 2007 Aguirre gets a search warrant for the offices of Sunroad Vice President of Development Tom Story, a former city official; search warrant is essentially voided after it's leaked to the press
April 6, 2007 Aguirre files charges against Story, alleging improper lobbying of city officials
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