350 Mission Street is a 375-foot proposed office tower to be built at the corner of Mission and Fremont Streets in downtown San Francisco. The site, which currently has a low-rise building occupied by Heald College, is catty-corner to the large construction site that will become the Transbay Transit Center.
350 Mission is a solid infill project in the growing canyon of high-rises along Mission Street. It’s clearly a better use of space than current conditions, but as far as shaping the city skyline is concerned, it’s not a game-changer. The tower will be dwarfed even by existing neighbors at 50 Fremont and the Millennium — not to mention a future neighbor, the Transbay tower, which will be the city’s tallest. Given the project’s proximity to the Transit Center and its prime location, it’s hard not to be disappointed with the building height, particularly after the initial mention of an 850-foot tower. But for an office building, the small project site (about 19,000 square feet) is a real constraint, and adding another elevator bank in a taller building would have reduced the amount of space that could be leased.
Besides, just because a tower is relatively short does not mean it is doomed to lack interesting design and sustainability features. I will reserve judgment on the moving benches until actually seeing them, but if the constructed building looks like the renderings, it will be a worthy addition to this intersection in spite of its height. The tower’s interaction with the street at ground level is also promising, including eatery space and a lobby opening onto the corner of Mission and Fremont, accentuated by ampitheater-style seating. The first floor of offices, located above the ground floor and mezzanine, is designed to be about 50 feet above grade, and the lobby’s spacious indoor gathering area will be a nice complement to the public space that will be built across the intersection at the Transit Center.
The owners of 50 Beale Street appealed the Planning Commission’s approval of 350 Mission on CEQA grounds, but the appeal really raised design issues that were framed in terms of CEQA catchphrases. 50 Beale is a 24-story office building located adjacent to the proposed tower and is probably quite sorry to lose its views to the west over the low-rise building that now occupies the 350 Mission site. To create a CEQA argument, 50 Beale objected to the mechanical element at 350 Mission, which would extend to only about twelve feet from the 50 Beale building. Even though tower separation was the real sticking point, the mechanical element served as a target on which to pin particular physical impacts like noise and air quality. 50 Beale also argued that the EIR should have analyzed a taller code-compliant alternative. That’s right: It’s another round of “you should have picked my favorite alternative.” But CEQA does not demand that an EIR analyze everyone’s favorite alternatives — only that it examine a reasonable range of alternatives that lessen a proposed project’s impacts. More to the point, there is nothing especially magical about a code-compliant alternative in the abstract, unless not complying with the code exacerbates or introduces additional physical impacts that could be lessened or avoided by complying. The non-compliant aspects of 350 Mission (bulk and setback) were not the source of the tower’s significant impacts. The EIR actually did analyze a code-compliant alternative and determined that complying with the code would not lessen these already less-than-significant impacts. This is not all that unexpected given the project’s nature and physical setting, and it makes this a less compelling alternative from a CEQA perspective.
The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to certify the EIR, so the tower will move forward.