AT A PUBLIC WORKSHOP in late April, the San Francisco Planning Department announced a new zoning proposal that would increase height allowances on several sites surrounding the proposed Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects– designed Transbay Terminal tower. Dubbed the Transit Center District Plan, the proposal would allow up to five new towers, including the Pelli tower, to break existing 600-foothigh zoning restrictions—an effort to increase neighborhood density.
“The new proposal would encourage an intensity of office development that would continue and even strengthen San Francisco's role as the region's premier high-density, transit-based commercial core,” says David Alumbaugh, a manager in the planning department's City Design Group. He adds that it would also “establish new programs for historic preservation, creation of a lively public realm of streets and public plazas, and funding mechanisms” that would contribute to the construction of the transit center.
The exact height for the new towers is uncertain because they would take their cue from the Transbay tower, whose height is reportedly planned as 1,000 to 1,200 feet. The proposal would have the next highest limit step down 150–200 feet from the tower's peak, with other towers stepping down yet again, creating a new arc on the city's skyline. The profile would also bridge the skyline gap between existing downtown towers and the newly completed One Rincon Hill housing tower and other planned high-rises in that area. But nothing would top the Transbay terminal. As the gateway to the proposed transit center, “the tower ought to be the tallest structure on the skyline,” says Alumbaugh.
To some locals—like BAR Architects principal Chris Haegglund, who works a few blocks over from the proposed tower sites—the plan seems like a good idea in principle. “Allowing those densities and helping develop fees for public transportation and a density that will help public transportation is good,” he says. But his support is not wholehearted. “What concerns me about high-rises is not only how they look from five miles away but also how they meet the street,” Haegglund notes. “It's important to be sensitive about what's on that ground level, like what kind of setbacks will be put in place, and to maintain the tight-knit urban fabric.”
City planners hope to have a draft proposal—which will also address the Transbay tower—ready for public review in the fall; a draft environmental impact report would follow next spring. From there, the proposal would proceed to public hearings before being adopted. “While we would have undertaken the plan with or without the transit center moving forward,” says Alumbaugh, “with the future … seemingly assured, it's time to rethink this part of San Francisco.”