For San Francisco democracy, the skyline’s the limit

San Francisco can be magical, but it’s rarely majestic. The City’s landscape has been impacted less by architectural design than neighborhood activism.

So in a place where small changes are fought with searing intensity, it’s hardly news that a big idea would generate instant reaction. And that would certainly describe the response to a plan to erect the tallest building in San Francisco’s history as the focal point of its proposed transit hub.

The environmental analysis of the plan to build the 1,070-foot-high Transbay Tower at First and Mission streets had barely been issued before critics sounded off, though not for reasons aesthetic or conceptual. It’s about public access to sunlight in parks, the fight over the sky in skyscraper.

It’s the kind of hyperbole that has kept San Francisco in the architectural backwater for decades. The changes created by one tower over some of The City’s downtown parks would be so small as to hardly be noticed. It is true that Union Square would be covered in shade at times, the times being literally several minutes.

Is that a reason to stop The City from moving forward into the new millennium? Maybe if you tan in Portsmouth Square on winter mornings. But still, your lot is small.

The problem with San Francisco’s skyline is that it’s been shaped by politics as much as sensible urban planning. It’s the reason why The City has so few beautiful new buildings and even fewer signature ones.

The Transamerica Pyramid, which I have always liked, would have been a spectacular structure if the original design had been approved that would have included at least 10 more stories, allowing it to be a slimmer, more stately version of its more squat self.

The Bank of America building has its moments, usually when it’s reflecting gold light off its deeply bronzed skin, a noble attempt at a visual beacon.

Yet the aspirations for both fell short and not much has been added in the decades in between. And the reason is that great architecture is not achieved by a neighborhood voice vote.

No less an expert than the man who designed the Bank of America building told me so some years back, an internationally acclaimed architect who fell in love with San Francisco but came to the conclusion that it was a great city “without any great buildings.”

“One of the problems with San Francisco — at least architecturally — is that it’s a tremendously democratic city,” Marc Goldstein told me. “And one of the reasons there’s so much mediocre architecture is that there’s so much mediocre opinion.”

That’s to say that there should be a buy-in of community support for large-scale projects, but concerns over a minute amount of sunlight should not stop projects like the Transbay Tower, which would be a stunning addition in a plan to add 1.3 million square feet of office space South of Market.

John Kriken, a consulting partner here at Skidmore Owings & Merrill and an internationally renowned urban planner, said that the trick in building towering skyscrapers is designing them to “relate” to each other so that the structures “don’t become a wall.”

“When we talked about the project, I argued strongly that when we do these taller buildings to make sure that we space them out,” said Kriken, author of “City Building for the 21st Century,” who also worked on the master plan for the Transbay Tower. “When you add density, you have to add open space as well, so that it has the effect of a softening gesture to the landscape.”

But no matter how the development turns out, it will likely be changed from the current design, because that’s just the nature of urban planning.

“In my 40-year professional career, I’d say that 30 percent of all the buildings in the Financial District have been changed from their initial designs,” he said.

So while light and shadows will be a part of the discussion, they’re just but one of many factors involved in modern planning. Rules regarding light and parks are tools for planners, not a wall to be used as resistance.

One building will not transform an entire skyline. But it could be a start.

Yet don’t worry — it won’t blot out the sun.

Ken Garcia appears Thursdays and Sundays in The San Francisco Examiner. Email him at

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