The word is finally out: of the three designs submitted to the competition deciding which architect/developer team will build the new Transbay Transit Center and its associated signature tower, the jury has selected the Pelli Clarke Pelli design. The Pelli design was ranked as the best choice by every juror. The next favorite design was the Forest City/Richard Rogers proposal, and in third place, the Rockefeller/Skidmore, Owings & Merrill design.
Was this decision based carefully on design considerations, or was it all just a matter of money? Perhaps not coincidentally, the jury’s votes lined up in descending order of developer sales offers. Hines, the developer of the recommended Pelli design, offered to pay $350 million for the land. Forest City offered $145 million to develop the Richard Rogers design, and the jury chose that design as its second place choice. Of course, the SOM design took third place, and Rockefeller only offered $118 million — just a little over 1/3 the Hines offer. I don’t mean to suggest that the jury did not carefully consider the design, but money is, of course, a central concern. After all, the primary purpose of the tower is to have an additional source of revenue that will be allocated towards funding the Transbay Transit Center.
However, this is not the end of the story, nor does it imply that the Pelli design as it currently stands will necessarily be built. The opinion of this jury has been submitted to the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, who will study the recommendation and discuss it with the city. The project must also still receive the stamp of approval of the Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission. In other words, now the real process for planning a development in San Francisco begins.
In an earlier post, I did tentatively name the Pelli design as my favorite of the three designs, but with a couple caveats. First and foremost: the tower should be redesigned from a 100% office tower to a mixed use tower. Combined with other office buildings that are being constructed in the immediate vicinity, we do not necessarily need 82 additional floors of office space flooding the market. A tower that integrates office, hotel, and residential uses would be more appropriate for this area, particularly in terms of fulfilling the goal of turning Transbay into a functional transit-oriented neighborhood. If the switch over from office to mixed use substantially decreases the $350 million offered by the developer, the city and the TJPA should take a closer look at the other two designs.
I do love Pelli’s idea of a rooftop park for the Transbay Transit Center: if it is well used, this park could become a tremendous civic asset for San Francisco and the Bay Area. I am also very excited about the “Bus Fountain”, in which bus traffic below the park triggers the release of water in the rooftop park fountains. However, it is of utmost importance that the park actually be used. The proposed park is 5.4 acres, and it will take quite a lot of people to make the park look attractively crowded and vibrant in the way that the Pelli Clarke Pelli renderings suggest. The question is: how could a park that is raised several stories in the air be designed so as to encourage this kind of extensive use? People in transit are likely not going to be waiting for their train or bus in the park; unless the waiting time happens to be very long, they will be waiting on the platform. Therefore, the design should be obvious and highly interconnected, in a way that encourages people — just casually walking on the street without a desire to get on a train or bus — to actually enter the Transit Center for the sole purpose of going up to the rooftop park. To sum up: this park does not have the tremendous advantage of being directly accessible to the street, and so the design will have to compensate by thoroughly integrating the park into its surroundings through other means.
Not that my opinion really matters, but from a design perspective, I still prefer the SOM design, whose twisting tower is much more interesting and has a greater shot at being a truly iconic building than Pelli’s more conservative structure. My overall support for the entire Pelli package is tentative, and it requires that the above two points be addressed. If the TJPA and the City decide to build the Pelli design, I sincerely hope that the City emphasizes both the need to change the current plan into a mixed use tower and to take care that the park is very well integrated into its environment in a way that encourages extensive use.
Above image courtesy Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects.