Pyramid Scheme

Pyramid Scheme

The proposed 555 Washington, rising at left next to the Transamerica Pyramid, has drawn fire from nearby residents.
Courtesy Heller Manus

After 4 years in the works, a proposed residential tower next to San Francisco’s iconic Transamerica Pyramid is getting the runaround from the planning commission. The project, designed by local firm Heller Manus, has been on the docket twice—and the architects hope the third time, in March, will be the charm.

Part of the controversy surrounding the 38-story tower is a height variance that allows it to rise twice as high as zoning allows. In exchange, there is a new park at the building’s base.

The 38-story high-rise is proposed for 555 Washington, on the same block as the Pyramid, in the city’s Financial District. The gently twisting cylinder is intended to play off the angles of its neighbor, which is arguably San Francisco’s most famous building. The Pyramid’s owner, Aegon Group, is backing the project. As part of the development, the private Redwood Park next to the Transamerica Building would be expanded and reclaimed as a public park, and a new pedestrian piazza with restaurants and widened sidewalks would be added to the street corner.

The 350-page draft environmental impact review was released for comment in March 2009, with a final certification scheduled for January of this year. The planning and parks and recreation commissions—both have oversight of the project—were forced to push back the January meeting to February because of a procedural snag, but that meeting, on February 11, turned into a bureaucratic fiasco. The commissioners were expected to approve the draft EIR, approve the variances, and then take an up-or-down vote on the project.

First, one of the planning commissioners could not attend because of a family emergency and another was recused from the vote. After a raucous four-hour public comment period, three of the remaining five planning commissioners voted against the draft EIR. Because it takes at least four commissioners to approve any motion, the meeting stalled. All three votes will be taken up again on March 18.

Among those leading the charge against 555 Washington are the residents of the nearby historic Telegraph Hill. An 18-page letter by the neighborhood group Telegraph Hill Dwellers in reaction to the draft EIR takes issue with a dramatic height variance (doubling the allowed height from 200 to more than 400 feet), the demolition of two buildings (one of which qualifies as a historic landmark), shadows cast on city parks, and the incorporation of a city alleyway into the proposed park. “Clearly this proposed project would impact the residents and visitors of North Beach and Telegraph Hill and have profound implications on the urban form of San Francisco,” the letter concludes.

Meanwhile, former San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, who lives in the area and is known to be anti-development, has been outspoken in condemning the project. This has left some of the project’s supporters to cry foul, partly because the three commissioners appointed by Peskin and the board were the ones who voted against the draft EIR.

“This is essentially the whole city against Aaron Peskin,” said the project’s architect Jeffrey Heller. “We have SPUR [San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association], we even have [San Francisco Architectural] Heritage. We have a dozen important San Francisco institutions on our side. I see it as defining the future of the city. Do we want to be an irrelevant tourist-trap NIMBY backwater?”

If the March meeting goes as planned, and the project is approved, there is still the final vote by the board of supervisors, which would take place this summer. Heller is optimistic that public support will help see it through. “I think our chances are fairly decent,” he said. “But that is a whole new world.”