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Flooding fire stations, fuzzy financials. SF spent millions on faulty infrastructure

A red and white fire department boat is docked near a modern, multi-story building along a waterfront, with various taller buildings in the background.
San Francisco Fire Station 35 has new equipment that has already failed, a report found. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

San Francisco’s fire and police stations cost millions more than they should have and are riddled with defects—a Civil Grand Jury report published Thursday reveals.

Two fire stations and one police station along the eastern waterfront exceeded initial budgets by $31 million, the report found. All the buildings, plus one other emergency facility, have significant structural challenges, poor designs and are prone to flooding.

The findings blame the Department of Public Works and say the issues could extend to hospitals and emergency response structures across the city. 

The jury’s 19 volunteers discovered numerous DPW-built buildings suffer from design flaws, poor locations and excessive expense, which could have been avoided.

“The city of San Francisco is facing a financial problem,” said Will McCaa, the lead author of the “Building San Francisco” report. “With the city’s fiscal problems, we can’t afford to waste money or overspend on capital projects with equipment that breaks.”

Along the Embarcadero, Fireboat Station 35—awarded a city landmark for its spot on the bay since 1915—received funds in 2014 for major works. However, the report states, “new fireboat station equipment has already failed.”

The station’s boat lifts have stopped working, cleats to secure fireboats to the pier were installed with incorrect dimensions, and fire trucks are not legally allowed on the floating station. Instead, trucks must stay at the original station, which is prone to flooding. The project, slated to cost $38 million, ended up costing $51 million, partly due to the rising cost of steel but also unforeseen PG&E infrastructure fitting and station damage.  

The image shows a modern fire station by the water with a bridge above, high-rise buildings in the background, and fireboats docked at the station.
Fireboat Station 35 was designated as a city landmark and has held its spot on the bay since 1915. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

At other fire and police stations, flooding is a regular problem, whether inside the facilities, on the street, or in the parking lot and has damaged police vehicles. 

The report did not look at all of the city’s emergency facilities, but it did examine the following: 

  • Fire Station 49 at 2241 Jerrold Ave. doesn’t drain water from inside the facility, forcing workers to mop water away when it floods. “The station has a pretty major oversight problem, which we’re stuck with forever now,” said Mike Mullin, assistant deputy chief of support services. 
  • A police crime lab and traffic patrol hub located at 1995 Evans Ave. regularly floods, hampering operations. A storm took out the station’s entrance for hours on New Year’s Eve in 2022 and permanently damaged a police car. 
  • A joint police and fire station in Mission Bay is at risk of flooding due to rising seas. 

“We stand by our strong track record at Public Works in delivering complex capital projects,” DPW spokesperson Rachel Gordon said in an email. “[We] look forward to more thoroughly reviewing the Civil Grand Jury’s findings for accuracy, for example, which agency is responsible for what, and to consider the recommendations to assess where we can and should do better.”

DPW regularly reports contracts and budgets to the Public Works Commission, but the jury found that the commission lacks efficient guidelines and rules to provide real oversight.

McCaa said the Commission, created after a 2020 ballot measure, experienced turmoil due to the split of responsibilities with the Sanitation and Streets Oversight Commission. The latter was recommended among 14 other commissions in a civil grand jury report also published Thursday morning to get the ax.

The jury recommends greater reliance on the Public Works Commission to prevent future issues. Public Works is currently responsible for over $5 billion worth of city infrastructure projects.

Lauren Post, Chair of the Public Works Commission, told The Standard the commission had yet to review the report but would soon publish a response. 

“In our short tenure, we have put performance metrics and reporting procedures in place that allow the commission to represent the public’s interest effectively,” Post said. “There is still more to be done, but we are on a solid trajectory.”

Some San Francisco oversight commissions have been criticized as pointless bodies.