Ken Garcia: City’s architectural aesthetic should boldly reach for the sky

When it comes to shooting for the sky in architecture, San Francisco has almost always drawn blanks. For a town that prides itself on its worldliness and sophistication, its building designs have generally been mundane and tepid, perhaps in part due to the fractious political landscape, where exasperating, endless fights loom over simple acts such as tree removal or road closure.

The so-called “Manhattanization” of San Francisco’s skyline that liberal critics shouted about in the late 1960s never quite occurred, though some unspectacular buildings were erected — boxlike, cookie-cutter yawners that have given The City a reputation as a second-tier town in terms of its architecture. It’s worth remembering that San Francisco’s undisputed architectural icon — the Transamerica Pyramid — almost never got built because of neighborhood protests and planning timidity. With a few notableexceptions, time has been kinder to that structure than architects have been to San Francisco in general.

So it is good news indeed that city planners are starting to think outside the box, recently proposing that officials explore the idea of raising the ceiling on future skyscrapers. City planners have broached the possibility of constructing as many as three towers that would be taller than anything in existence, including one skyscraper higher than 1,000 feet — which would make it the tallest building west of Chicago.

It’s a bold and welcome concept in search of some details. City officials say it would take at least two years of studies and planning to determine if such a jump in the height limits is workable and affordable. But as city planning chief Dean Macris told the Transbay Joint Powers Authority board last week, there is no reason to delay discussion about changing the rules. And even a cursory look at The City’s downtown canopy would suggest changes are in order, particularly around the Transbay Terminal, where the towers would be located.

Now, bigger isn’t necessarily better — the most remarkable thing about the Sears Tower in Chicago is simply that it stands out so far on the flat horizon. And the U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles, at 1,018 feet, is notable only in that it provides some juice to that city’s less-than-distinctive downtown center.

But it’s been far too long since San Francisco officials addressed the self-imposed height limitations that were part of an anti-growth backlash in the mid-1970s, when the reaction to the Transamerica and Bank of America buildings set off panic alarms about the future of The City’s skyline. It’s now been 20 years since city planners dropped the height limit to 550 feet in the downtown area — and the requirement has resulted in a flat, drab look to the Financial District and newer buildings in South of Market.

A change in the height requirement appears to make economic sense as well, since planners believe that the increase would generate hundreds of millions of dollars in extra revenue that would help them build a new Transbay Terminal and get that long-expected project moving. Anyone who sees the terminal knows that it looks like the transit center that time forgot, and the idea of a giant skyscraper looming over the new commuter rail station would bring excitement to an area in need of it.

Given that a number of residential buildings just up the street will extend beyond 600 feet, the area at First and Mission seems the perfect location to put the trio of skyscrapers — providing that area with a dramatic new aesthetic. Of course, that would be left to the architects picked to design the towers — but potentially it could make a huge contribution to The City’s skyline.

Yet, it would require The City to abandon its parochial views on architecture and its deep-seated belief that somehow San Francisco is not the right place to build high-rise structures. If anything, city planners have seemed to reach the conclusion that San Francisco’s future must be based on higher-density residential and commercial buildings in its core development areas. That seems to join well with the idea that making the skyline more dramatic and graceful is a goal worth pursuing, or certainly studying.

This is not a time for city officials to embrace their fallback positions on height limitations, nor the ideological response that high-rises go against the fabric of neighborhood planning. Cities worldwide are trying to push the architectural envelope while San Francisco has remained in a holding pattern.

That kind of planning change will no doubt be controversial. But just about everything is in San Francisco, so if you’re going to have another extensive development battle, at least reach out for the sky.

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