To the Highest Bidder

To the Highest Bidder

The night of August 6 couldn’t have been a more exciting one for San Franciscans. Thousands watched as they saw their vested interests realized in the form of three ambitious design and development schemes for a new Transbay Transit Center and Tower located on a 12-acre site in the city’s South of Market district. A considerable improvement over the existing Transbay Terminal, a drab and inefficient facility built in 1939, the new 1 million-square-foot transit center will serve local and regional buses, and in future stages, a high-speed rail line connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles. Surpassing the iconic Transamerica pyramid not far away, Transbay will be the tallest tower on the West Coast.

That night at City Hall, proposals unveiled by Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and Pelli Clarke Pelli showed the potential for architectural innovation to sit alongside—not destroy—the city’s legacy of historic preservation. Each scheme had a striking newness to it, and it seemed as if the Transbay Joint Powers Authority (TJPA), the governing body behind the design and development competition, could not go wrong in choosing any of the three.


Proposals by SOM, top, and Rogers Stirk Harbour, above, included a hotel and condos, while Pelli’s is an office-only building. COURTESY ROGERS STIRK HARBOUR & PARTNERS / TJPA

Fast forward to September 10, when the competition jury announced its recommendation of Pelli Clarke Pelli to the TJPA. In the jury’s statement, one message was loud and clear: By outbidding the other teams by nearly $200 million, the team of Hines and Pelli Clarke Pelli had made the TJPA a financial offer it could not refuse.

In a press release posted on TJPA’s website, the nine-person jury, which included local architects, engineers, planners, transit experts, and critics, issued the following statement: “The Pelli/Hines design for the Transit Center and Tower best met the TJPA’s operational, functional, and aesthetic requirements, and Hines’ offer of a purchase price [$350 million] for the Tower property was significantly higher than the offers by the other teams.” Although there had been surprisingly little discussion about the design-driven aspects of the winning proposal on September 20, the TJPA board voted unanimously in favor of the jury’s recommendation.

In design terms it remains to be seen if and how the Pelli/Hines proposal trumps the other schemes. A Peter Walker–designed park will top the glass-and-steel terminal’s roof, creating a tension between the apparent lightness of the building and the weight of the park, which includes grass swales and trees. A series of “light columns” will bring daylight into the terminal and connect commuters to the more leisurely atmosphere above. The adjacent 1,200-foot-tall tower will have a rectilinear base that tapers into a slightly conical form at the peak, topped by wind turbines, one of many green strategies incorporated into the project. 

Unlike the other two proposals, which called for mixed-use towers including a hotel, offices, and condominiums, the Pelli/Hines proposal calls for an office-only tower. The single-use scheme is projected to be much more profitable than a mixed-use tower, although some argue that a mixed-use tower could enhance the project’s benefit to the public by providing a 24-hour draw to the 19-acre site.

The entrance to the transit center by Pelli.

Even with such financial surety, there are no guarantees that Hines’ bottom-line approach for the tower will buy the best design for it—or for the transit terminal. It’s of course still early in the design process, but, pointed out San Francisco Chronicle critic John King, “the Transbay design isn’t ‘just right.’ It’s just OK.” Still, Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, remains optimistic about the potential for the project’s symbolic value: “There’s an old Renaissance idea that the tallest building in your community should express your value system. Transbay is a modern take on that idea, as it will mark the city’s commitment to public transit and a more sustainable form of urbanism.”