Growing up

Pub date May 6, 2008
WriterDavid Carini
SectionGreen CitySectionNews & Opinion


GREEN CITY Arguments about urban sprawl and the need to drastically improve transit services at the Transbay Terminal are driving plans for massive new skyscrapers in the SoMa District. Although the project is still in its initial phase, as many as seven towers — some higher than the Transamerica Pyramid — would surround the centerpiece Transbay Tower.

At an April 30 public hearing on the project at Golden Gate University, about 150 people, mostly developers and architects, voiced their opinions as they listened to the city’s updates on the proposal. For the most part, the business community audience wanted buildings as high as possible and felt that even the city’s most ambitious proposal, to build a Transbay Tower more than 1,200 feet high — almost twice the height of One Rincon Hill — was insufficient.

"I support raising the heights. By increasing density, we’re taking better care of our environment," Rincon Hill resident Jamie Whitaker told the room.

The original plan called for a 550-foot Transbay Tower, but the city wants to double its height to ensure sufficient funds for the Transit Center, the Caltrain extension, and other infrastructure improvements. The project’s environmental impact report will study three height options: 850, 1,000, and 1,200 feet. The addition of a couple of hundred feet would raise revenue from about $150 million to between $310 million and $410 million, according to the San Francisco Planning Department.

Although increasing the height of the planned office buildings will bring in more money for other improvements, the increased density comes with transit and quality of life costs. Some worry that the higher population will create an unlivable space.

"Mission Street is turning into a canyon," Jennifer Clary, president of the urban environmental group SF Tomorrow, told the Guardian. "Already there are virtually no parks in this side of the city. They’re creating a demand for more open space, but they’re not fulfilling it."

Although a new park will extend about 11 acres on the roof of the Transbay Terminal, some existing open spaces may be in jeopardy. If the Transbay Tower is higher than 1,000 feet, it will cast a shadow for part of the day over Justin Herman Plaza and possibly Portsmouth Square.

Even though Proposition K, which passed in 1984, states that new buildings cannot cast shadows on public parks, the city’s planning department has the ability to waive that rule. "The law says no new ‘significant’ shadows, so it’s really a judgment call and can be interpreted in a variety of ways," Joshua Switzky, project manager for the San Francisco Planning Department told the Guardian.

For example, the city allowed the Asian Art Museum, remodeled in 2003, to cast a small shadow over Civic Center Plaza. "Shadow impacts can be precisely calculated, and we’re working to mitigate the impact on parks," Switzky said.

In addition to thoughts on how to keep parks sunny, several ideas to ease congestion were introduced at the meeting, including changing one-way streets, restricting terminal access to public vehicles, installing more bike lanes, and increasing curb width.

According to a 2004 Planning Department study, 70 percent of downtown workers commute using public transit, 17 percent drive, and the rest walk or bike. Sufficient funding has yet to be secured to connect Caltrain tracks to the Transbay Terminal, instead of its present end at 4th and King streets. Either way, the planning department hopes to increase commuters using transit by 6 percent, according to the April 2008 Transit Center District Plan.

"Right now all we have is a huge skyscraper for a bus terminal, and it’s not clear if the city will invest the extra money from taller buildings to improve transit," Clary told us.

The planning department estimates it will need an additional $1.9 billion to connect Caltrain, and if it doesn’t reach that goal, SoMa may be inundated by even more cars since there will be no direct commute route from the Peninsula to the new Transbay Terminal offices. In November, California voters will decide on a $10 billion bond measure to create a high-speed rail line linking Los Angeles to San Francisco at the new Transbay Terminal, the centerpiece of the planned project.

The next public meeting will be held at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on Thursday, May 8 at 5:30 p.m.