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

Making the Case for Great Height

It looks like the SF Bay Guardian is once more whining about building tall buildings. Their analysis is, in general, extremely unnuanced, and usually follows this formula: if it’s tall, it’s bad. This time, their claim is that the new Transbay Tower is the “devil’s bargain.” Their post actually does not even give the usual arguments (deletion of views, wind tunnels, darkness); the only argument is: “we don’t want a highrise.” In other words, tall buildings are bad. All tall buildings. It’s another case of faux San Francisco liberalism. On the one hand, folks at the SFBG will probably tell you that they are environmentalists and that they oppose sprawl. On the other hand, they oppose efforts to:

  • Increase the density and vitality of urban spaces;
  • Provide much needed housing in the urban core; and
  • Pay for the Transit Center which will, at long last, minimize the confusion caused by having a few dozen transit agencies in the Bay Area by putting almost all of the most important ones in a single, unified terminal.

One wonders: if the folks at SFBG don’t like highrises, why did they even move to San Francisco in the first place? My advice? I’m sure that Modesto could use a Modesto Guardian, so they may want to look into relocating.

The Guardian post feels like a piece of history that I thought we had left behind. Although (or perhaps, because) San Francisco has a high number of highrises for its relatively small population, the city has a notorious history for fiercely preserving older, elegant Victorian architecture and for protesting highrises and more modern architectural trends. Thankfully, we’ve largely moved beyond that limited (and decidedly conservative) state of thinking, but even now, almost any community meeting in San Francisco that touches on highrise construction will have at least one attendee who protests about “Manhattanization” and loss of views. The kickoff Transbay meeting I went to a week or so ago was no exception. Transbay is a special location, and I sincerely hope this project does not get watered down, as there are many reasons not to skimp on the height of the signature tower. Still, at this point, not much about the project is set in stone — including important data such as the actual height of the tower. Although current proposals go as tall as 1,375 feet, the tower in the end might get quite a bit shorter as the review process progresses. Current designs seem to range in the 1,200 to 1,375 feet range, which would not only make this tower substantially taller than the Transamerica Pyramid (our current tallest, at 853 feet) but also the tallest building on the United States West Coast, eclipsing the U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles, which stands at 1,018 feet.

The presence of the Transbay Transit Center hub right next to the tower makes this the ultimate example of transit-oriented development. The people who visit or who work or live in the tower will be right on top of a multimodal station served by Caltrain, Muni buses, as well as regional bus services, and hopefully California high speed rail. A short walk through an underground pedestrian tunnel will allow riders to connect to the 9 BART and Muni Metro subway lines that serve the Embarcadero Station, one (longish) block from Transbay. The combination of these trains and buses gives riders direct access to San Francisco International Airport, the majority of neighborhoods in San Francisco proper, and most parts of the greater Bay Area region. If high speed rail is completed (this is a huge project that I hope to discuss in more depth in the future), that easy access stretches far beyond the Bay Area to Los Angeles and the rest of California. It stands to reason that we want to maximize the number of people who use these extensive transit options. Allowing a very tall tower and increasing density in the Transbay district will allow us to do exactly that.

Maintaining height will also help to make the Transbay Tower distinctive, and the appropriate way to cap off an area which will likely become one of San Francisco’s most important civic spaces. In addition, once the planned Rincon Hill towers are erected, the location at 1st and Mission Streets will sit sandwiched between two highrise districts: residential Rincon Hill to the south, and the Financial District to the north. In effect, the center of downtown will shift southward towards Transbay. For decades, the San Francisco skyline has been skewed, with the two tallest, most massive towers (Transamerica and Bank of America) situated on the very edge of the Financial District and paradoxically shorter buildings along Market Street, downtown’s main spine. For a more attractive skyline, it makes sense to have the tallest tower in the center with building heights tapering off towards the edges. The main Transbay Tower, combined with the shorter towers in Rincon Hill, will finally establish a sense of balance to the skyline. This picture gives us a pretty good sense of this:


[courtesy San Francisco Planning Department]

Of course, the tallest tower in the middle is the signature Transbay tower that is the subject of the design competition. The above sketch also fills in other towers that are planned for the Transbay District as well as Rincon Hill.

If it is done properly, the Transbay Tower should eclipse the well-loved Transamerica Tower as San Francisco’s most distinctive building. Superior design is critical, and the environmental review process will help to nail down the exact height which is appropriate, but this site can and should support a tower of at least 1,000 feet — both for consistency with long-term sustainability goals and to emphasize the importance of this location as the Bay Area’s primary regional hub. This sort of height wouldn’t really be appropriate anywhere else in the Bay Area, but at this location, height is not only appropriate, but necessary.



4 thoughts on “Making the Case for Great Height

  1. I could not agree more! Well-written and very persuasive. Your views provide great food for thought.

    Posted by carol | 9 August 2007, 7:30 pm


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