Rincon Hill / Transbay / South of Market, San Francisco, Skyline

Three Transbay Designs Unveiled

Last night’s Transbay meeting in the Board of Supervisors chambers marked an important point in the process that will result in the Transbay Transit Center and its associated signature tower. Although this is just the beginning of a long review (and even longer construction) process, we should not mistake the significance. Not only is Transbay the single most important transit infrastructure project currently being planned in the Bay Area, but the highrise development district surrounding the new Transit Center will help to bring about a renaissance of South of Market that seems like it should be inevitable and yet has, thus far, been elusive. The proximity of this highrise district to the Transit Center hub makes this project a supreme example of the type of sustainable growth which I would like to see much more of, all over the Bay Area.

The project to rebuild the current Transbay Terminal into a world-class transit facility is complex and is projected to cost around $1 billion. Different sources of funding will be required to bring together the different components of the project, but one important source is the funds obtained from the leasing or selling of the land for the Transbay Tower; that money will help finance the construction of the new Transit Center. The desire to get more funds out of this tower has progressively increased the potential tower height over the past year or so. Initially projected to be around 850 feet (roughly the same height as the Transamerica Pyramid), the tower was later increased to 925 feet, and the current tallest plans suggest a soaring tower as tall as 1,375 feet.

The signature tower that is paired with the Transit Center will obviously be much more visible than the Transit Center itself, which will be a few blocks long, but only a handful of stories tall. The tower will forever change San Francisco’s skyline, but both the tower and Transit Center deserve the most thorough and robust design analysis we can muster. Towards that end, three groups are offering competing designs. Over the course of the next month or so, the Transbay Joint Powers Authority board will review the designs and choose a winner to build the project. The purpose of last night’s public meeting was to unveil these plans. Each group spoke for at least 30-45 minutes at the meeting, so I will not attempt to be complete or comprehensive. Instead, I’ll just report a few thoughts and my initial impressions, along with a few photos I took of the models and accompanying posters.

The first design presentation was presented by English architect Richard Rogers, in conjunctions with the MacFarlane Partners and Forest City Enterprises developers. Here is a photo of the model they brought to the meeting:


(Note: for all photos in this post, click the image to load a Flickr page for a close-up look.)

I have fairly mixed reactions to this presentation. The best part of their presentation was their emphasis on the importance of endowing the tower with multiple and diverse uses, to help ensure that the Transbay area is active at all times. The design suggested about 65,000 square feet of retail that fronts onto a pedestrian plaza located at the corner of 1st and Mission. The tower is offset to the east to allow this plaza to be light and sunny. The lower floors of the tower are all offices, starting with floor plates of 30,000 square feet for the first six floors, and then decreasing the floor plate to 22,000 square feet for upper floors. The total office component (about 600,000 square feet) is estimated to occupy about half of the tower. Directly above the office space will be an upscale hotel with about 200 rooms, and the uppermost floors will feature a mixture of affordable and luxury condominiums — likely around 200-300 homes, depending on the exact size of the hotel portion and the mixture of unit types. The top floor is envisioned to be a restaurant. The diverse uses are key, and I think the Forest City plan offers an appropriate balance.

The red cage that encases this building is meant to imitate the Golden Gate Bridge. Renderings and models offer an incomplete view of architectural details, but the red cage strikes me as a touch too austere. It looks a lot like Sutro Tower, but that is a tower which I would rather see only one version of, and definitely not in the middle of downtown. A lighter, more ethereal design seems appropriate. The presentation also gave a lackluster explanation about the tower’s sustainability credentials, despite frequent repetition of the word “sustainable.” Their main point was that the mixed uses of the building allowed energy to be diverted to different parts of the building at different times of day, but the other two presentations were more thorough about explaining special features of the building. The presentation also asserted that the tower would attract retail of regional importance, but the small amount of space dedicated to retail (65,000 square feet) doesn’t seem to suggest this is that likely. Union Square, just a mile from the site, is already firmly anchored as the region’s retail center, even more so since the opening of the Westfield San Francisco Centre. I’m not certain about the source of the claim, but it struck me as simply an evidence-free attempt to boost the presentation. To sum up, the first presentation used a lot of the right buzz words, but nothing really grabbed me.

The second design proposal was presented by Skidmore Owings Merrill with the Rockefeller Group Development Corp. Craig Hartman (who also designed the SFO International Terminal) spoke about this project. The light, open, airy, and cheerful atmosphere of this design captivated me immediately. Here is a rendering of the terminal:


Also, here is the model of the greater downtown area, with the Transbay Tower. The left edge of the photo is just east of 3rd Street, and the right side of the photo goes almost all the way to The Embarcadero:


This tower is also mixed use, with about 31 stories of office located below 42 stories of residential (15% at BMR). A skyroom observation area is planned for the top. The design also envisions a lively, pedestrian-only area on Natoma Street. All in all, this was an exciting presentation. Seeing the renderings at the meeting immediately made me wish the Transit Center was already constructed, just so that I could go and enjoy the space.

The third and last presentation of the evening was given by Pelli Clark Pelli Architects. This design is unique for the presence of a large park on the top level of the actual Transit Center. At the length of two football fields, this park is estimated to hold several thousand people. The presentation was especially entertaining for its relentless repetition of the importance of this park and how much fun it would be to relax and play in the park. One particularly “stunning” observation was that since this is a park, “plants will grow in it.” (Really? No way!) Still, the park would really be a great addition to the downtown area — a grander version of the wonderful garden that is part of Oakland’s Kaiser building — and its location on the roof of the Transit Center will encourage even more activity in the Transbay area, beyond just station or tower traffic. In some sense, the park is special because it adds one additional use that the other models lack — a public space, and a recreational use, that even Forest City’s pedestrian plaza cannot really match. This presentation also observed that the linear design of the proposed Transbay park is a nice foil to the linear setup of Golden Gate Park, while the visibility of downtown afforded by the park’s location (several stories in the air) recalls the panoramic views that one obtains from San Francisco’s most famous hillside parks like Alamo Square. Here is a rendering of the park:


Also, a photo of the Pelli model, with the park clearly visible:


The park will be accessible from surrounding streets, nearby buildings, and of course the Transit Center itself — and there are some interesting connections between the park and the rest of the Transit Center. Around the whole perimeter of the park will be a body of water with a Bus Fountain — so called, because the bus traffic in the levels below the park will instigate the water spouting in the fountain. The design emphasizes the concepts of light and openness by allowing sunlight to penetrate from the park all the way down to the Caltrain tracks below ground.

The presentations were broad in their discussion, but based just on the meeting, the Pelli Clarke Pelli plan has perhaps edged out to be my favorite, on the whole, even though I prefer some of the Skidmore terminal and tower design elements. Although I laughed during the presentation at the excessive repetition about the park, they have a point: it is a pretty special park, and if it’s extensively used, a large park of this sort in this location would be a tremendous civic asset. My real complaint is that at this point in time, the plan is for this to be an exclusively office tower. I believe this would be a huge mistake, as it would encourage the weekend quiet of the Financial District to extend southward into Transbay. Above all, Transbay should be a vital urban district, active both day and night, weekday and weekend — and a huge office tower will add only weekday vitality. A mixed use building (such as those proposed by Forest City and Skidmore) is far more appropriate for this location. Combine a mixed use building with the Pelli Transit Center park, and we would have a real treasure.

Anyway, this has been a really long post, so I’ll close for now. I have a few more initial thoughts on Transbay, which I’ll mention briefly later in a couple follow-up posts. For now, here are a couple more links with information and photos on the designs:



5 thoughts on “Three Transbay Designs Unveiled

  1. Your observations are very well thought out. Unfortunately they led you to the wrong conclusion!

    The SOM design has so much more to offer to our City than the Pelli office building.

    Posted by keith | 10 August 2007, 1:10 pm
  2. Although I did express a favorite at the end, mostly because I felt like I should, I will say it’s not as clear as it sounds from the post. I would actually be thrilled if SOM’s design is chosen — really, I think only the Forest City design would be disappointing. I do like SOM’s design more, but I am excited by the promise offered by a new civic space like the Pelli park. Though, even there, there is a worry that the park might be underutilized or might have an insufficient number of access points, “hovering” in the air as it is. (I love the Bus Fountain, though!) So, I expressed a favorite, but I am perhaps less decided than I made it sound. Not that my opinion matters, in any case.

    You’re right to point out Pelli’s weakness in offering an office building, but that does not mean that is that will be constructed. If the TJPA chooses the Pelli design, I hope they would require that this be redone as a mixed use tower. Were the office-only aspect of Pelli set in stone, I would unequivocally throw my support behind SOM.

    Posted by Eric | 10 August 2007, 2:42 pm


  1. Pingback: More Transbay Eye Candy « Transbay Blog - 11 August 2007

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  3. Pingback: Jury Selects the Pelli Transbay Design « Transbay Blog - 10 September 2007


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