Posted: Sep 8, 2009, 5:54 PM
Join Date: Jun 2006
Location: San Francisco & Tucson
Extra S.F. skyscrapers a mixed blessing
John King Chronicle Urban Design Critic
Sunday, September 6, 2009
If all had gone according to plan, construction cranes still would hover above San Francisco, erecting towers where no towers had gone before.
Instead, for the next few years we'll be contemplating a much different scene: a life-size reminder that skylines are like cities - they grow in fits and starts, and never according to plan.
Viewed from this perspective, San Francisco's four newest and tallest condominium towers aren't simply shafts that scrape the sky. They're cultural markers showing us how downtown is intended to grow - up and out, glassy and sleek. That's the vision of planners and politicians who in the early years of this decade loosened city zoning to allow as many as 15 residential high-rises to emerge from the long-neglected blocks between the Bay Bridge and the Financial District.
What we also see, unfortunately, is the challenge of architecture writ large - the difficulty of getting things right both on the ground and in the air, and the complexity of trying to shift a city's scale without bending it out of shape.
One rincon stands out
The most visible newcomer is 590-foot One Rincon, set atop the summit of Rincon Hill alongside the Bay Bridge. The Millennium Tower at Mission and Fremont streets is taller still at 645 feet, though less prominent, given its location on the edge of the Financial District.
By comparison, the largest completed complex is modest: the Infinity, a pair of 371- and 421-foot high-rises shaped like suave clovers in aqua-green glass, set one block inland from the Embarcadero on Folsom Street.
The Infinity offers the fullest sense of what the future might hold for the Rincon Hill and Transbay neighborhoods mapped out by planners in the early years of the decade.
The two clovers - accented by zipper-like processions of balconies - seem to levitate above eight-story bases framed by boxy steel bays. The base forms a solid wall along Folsom Street, lightened by a tall ground floor that will house a restaurant, but it pulls open on Main and Spear streets to allow pedestrians to stroll through a flowing plaza of futurist cool designed by San Francisco's Hargreaves Associates.
The plaza has two levels linked by a black-granite wall that's terraced to allow easy seating, cut by skylights that illuminate a health club below. Metal benches curve around steep vine-shrouded hillocks.
Most definitely this is not Herb Caen's San Francisco, and the air of contemporary chic is sure to put off many longtime San Franciscans. But the Infinity ties into its surroundings with a genuinely inviting urbanity, albeit global and glassy in feel.
The problem with the Infinity is that it doesn't know when to stop.
Don't blame the buildings; the development team of Union Property Capital and Tishman Speyer Properties, abetted by Heller Manus Architects, persuaded the city in 2003 to bend neighborhood zoning and allow two towers 82 feet apart. The Rincon Hill plan approved the next year requires 115 feet of separation, as well as towers that are more slender than this pair.
The real-life impact? From many angles the clovers blur into a wall. Two sinuous forms become one broad slab.
And that's exactly what shouldn't occur near the water, in a part of town low-slung until now. This is tacitly acknowledged by Bernardo Fort-Brescia, whose firm Arquitectonica updated the original Heller Manus towers, softening edges and trading glass for concrete.
"I wanted to make the sky flow around the buildings," says Fort-Brescia. "I was trying to strive for less mass."
Missing a twin tower
One Rincon has a different quandary: one tower too few.
The approved project includes the completed tower, now perched in slender isolation at the end of First Street with freeway ramps on two sides and the bridge on the third. Facing west the tower has a bowed form, the verticality emphasized by an elongated aluminum grid; the east-facing facade is flat and nearly all glass. At the Fremont and Harrison corner of the site, an empty lot awaits a 540-foot twin that will be set at a diagonal from its predecessor and, being downhill, will appear 10 stories shorter.
Each of the buildings will soar above anything else allowed in the Rincon Hill district. But here, unlike the Infinity, a developer didn't lobby to bend the rules. Just the opposite: Urban West Associates submitted a design by architecture firm Solomon Cordwell Buenz for towers of 330 and 280 feet. It was city planners who recommended the boost, taking their cue from San Francisco's long-established urban design goal of using buildings to reinforce the topography.
The extra height on Folsom Street, in essence, led to extra height at the top of Rincon Hill.
When (if?) the economy improves and the aesthetic composition is completed, One Rincon won't seem so visually disruptive or out of place. In the meantime, we're left with a rail-thin spike that has been likened to a tall air purifier - a comment snarky but apt.
Compared with One Rincon or the Infinity, Millennium Tower's path was clear. It's at a corner reserved since 1985 for a high-rise; across the street, the new Transbay Terminal is to be accompanied by a skyscraper as high as 1,000 feet.
Here bravado makes sense, and Handel Architects fashioned San Francisco's most sculptural thrust since the Transamerica Pyramid. Clad in milky blue glass, the Millennium is an upward slice with the northeast and southwest corners notched back to make the tower fold in on itself, culminating in a crystalline crown.
Another optical illusion comes from the aluminum fins that ascend the facade in two diagonal strokes. Viewed straight on they disappear, making the Millennium seem all glass; elsewhere they're as emphatic as a lightning bolt.
Deal trumps design
As skyscraper art this is all good fun - a jolt of drama in a transition zone with too many dull boxes. But the ground-level experience is hobbled by another peril facing projects this size: The deal takes precedence over design.
The complex approved in 2003 was an ambitious mix. Developer Millennium Partners intended for the lower floors to contain a hotel and the upper ones condominiums, while an 11-story annex to the east would hold offices. The different populations would meet in a sky-lit atrium on Mission with a staircase leading to an open-air plaza, both spaces open to the public.
But big deals need big loans, and what finally opened this spring is a conventional package of 491 condominiums that start on the third floor. The hotel didn't pencil out. The "offices" instead are high-ceilinged flats.
The atrium remains - but with no reason for anyone to go inside, it's a cul-de-sac rather than a crossroads.
Another change: Because the entire tower is residential, the second floor is dedicated to mechanical systems hidden behind a metal grill, horizontal and tight.
The issue here isn't that the windowless grill presses down on the ground-floor retail space, a clumsy counterpart to the tower's lithe skyline presence; design details go astray in every building. But when a structure is this large - filling a block along Mission Street - any flaw is magnified.
That's true of all three projects, and all the residential high-rises yet to come.
In districts where several buildings jostle each other on each block, missteps are fine. They become part of the urban mix; the collision of layers is part of the appeal.
But when every newcomer aspires to icon status, there's less room for error. Towers need to command the skyline, they need to enliven the street and they need to know their place.
That's not an easy balancing act, but it's the bar that planners, developers and architects should strive for.
San Francisco isn't like other cities, where the ravages of urban renewal and suburban flight have hollowed the landscape. Even those cities that have staged a comeback often remain terrains you navigate by car, not on foot. Towers sit atop exposed garages or behind parking lots.
But San Francisco, for all its shortcomings, remains a city to be savored step by step, moment by moment. Neighborhoods are defined by their street life. The best ones are richly textured, with visual surprises and unexpected twists. They're places where you want to be, whether you live there or not.
New buildings and districts can add another rich layer to the experience. But we need to keep our standards high. Because with buildings this large, the stakes are high as well.
Address: 425 First St.
The basics: 60 stories, 376 condominiums, no retail or public space. An additional 52-story tower is planned.
Architect: Solomon Cordwell Buenz
Engineer: Magnusson Klemencic Associates
Skybit: The completed tower in 2008 was selected as one of the world's 28 best new high-rises by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.
Address: 301 Mission St.
The basics: 60 stories, 419 condominiums, Michael Mina's RN74 wine bar and a small public atrium.
Architect: Handel Architects
Engineer: Desimone Consulting Engineers
Skybit: At 645 feet, this is the tallest residential tower west of Chicago. It is the only one of the three projects fully designed by San Francisco architects.
Address: 338 Spear St.
The basics: 35 and 40 stories, 650 condominiums, a large public plaza. A restaurant by Boulevard's Nancy Oakes opens next year.
Architect: Arquitectonica with Heller-Manus Architects
Engineer: Magnusson Klemencic Associates
Skybit: One of Arquitectonica's early towers, the Atlantis, appears in the opening credits of "Miami Vice."
E-mail John King at firstname.lastname@example.org.