Into Thin Air

Into Thin Air

On April 30, the San Francisco Planning Department unveiled a rezoning proposal that would increase building heights south of Market Street beyond the current 550-foot limit, essentially shifting the skyline’s center from the existing business district north of Market Street to the south, toward the new Transbay Transit Center.

The proposed rezoning, further outlined at the Transbay Citizen’s Advisory Committee meeting on May 8, will be presented in greater detail in a draft environmental impact report scheduled for spring 2009. The rezoning is the culmination of years of civic plans that are only now coming to fruition. The city’s 1971 Urban Design Plan, reiteratedin the 1985 Downtown Plan, had originally proposed increased heights south of Market Street, reinforcing the idea of a high-density street wall along the city’s main spine.

With this new set of guidelines, city planners are attempting to contrast the city’s undistinguished skyline with the creation of an urban topography that plays against the undulating natural landscape. At a scenic vantage point, three “mounds” would be identifiable: Telegraph Hill, the Transbay Transit district, and Rincon Hill, with Folsom Street as the lower “saddle” between the latter two.   

Pelli Clark Pelli’s recently unveiled Transbay Transit Center Tower—measuring somewhere in the vicinity of 1,000 feet—would act as the crown of the new city center, with surrounding towers forming a lower “ringed zone” 150 to 200 feet away. Nothing is set: The planning agency is hedging its bets, presenting a variety of height scenarios ranging from maintaining the existing 550-foot cap to the 1,200-foot upper limit as proposed by the Pelli scheme.

Architects’ and planners’ responses to the plan largely favored the possibility of increased density in the city and a more dynamic, even sculptural, skyline. But they also cautioned that the new construction be sensitive to its surroundings and were wary of the ongoing tension between the city’s aspirations as a metropolis and local planning politics constraining its development to incremental urban gestures.

UC Berkeley planning professor Peter Bosselman, who participated in the development of the 1985 plan, pointed out that the creation of these artificial “hills” will be difficult to manage in the face of developer pressures. Already, he pointed out, there are projects underway that would undermine the idea of a “saddle” between the Transbay mound and Rincon Hill.

Glenn Rescalvo, principal at Handel Architects—which is designing the 60-story Millennium Tower under construction next to the Transbay Terminal—asserted that the area’s success will be driven by the architectural quality of the surrounding projects. “When you build tall, you have to respond to everything else,” he said.

Rescalvo did not speak highly of most tall buildings going up around Rincon Hill, though, and suggested that future developers build taller around these projects and shift the focus to the Transit Center. Dana Merker, of Patri Merker Architects, agreed, pressing for new construction to take into account the context of existing and future development, and to develop a sculptural vision of the city landscape as a whole.

The zoning process, scheduled to last at least 18 months, will aim to address unanswered questions regarding the planning proposal and clarify the vision not just for the Transbay Center and Rincon Hill, but the scheme’s wider urban implications.

For instance, little has been said so far on how the increased height limits will change the character of the existing district; how new high-rise buildings should relate to each other and to buildings in the area; how new development will connect to Mission Bay, the ballpark, and the Embarcadero; or how the new landmarks will change the face of the city as a whole. 

Eric Lum