A high rise apartment building is seen under construction among many other tall skyscrapers in downtown San Francisco. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner0

Height isn’t the issue: Good buildings boost vitality

New commercial buildings and mixed-use structures are generating fresh revenues for San Francisco. The city’s assessor-recorder reported recently that property values jumped by $26 billion last fiscal year, boosting city revenues. Major projects, including large-footprint office blocks like Dropbox HQ in Mission Bay as well as high-rises like Salesforce Tower, now the city’s tallest, have contributed a large share of the growth, according to real estate experts.

Clearly, big new commercial buildings — including towers, our specialty — bring economic benefits to the Bay Area. Today, they appear to have the momentum. But that could change overnight. That’s why it’s time to revisit controls on development and champion ways to build bigger, higher — and better.

Tall buildings, like the Park Tower at Transbay that our firm designed and that Facebook recently leased in its entirety, are essential to the city’s long-term prospects. They entice major employers. They garner outsize attention — and also close scrutiny, as they did 50 years ago when the San Francisco Bay Guardian cautioned against downtown’s “mad rush toward the sky.” More recently, Proposition M has restricted new, sorely needed office space for [decades/years], driving up lease rates and recently choking off 6 million square feet of new offices and mixed uses in the pipeline.

What is different today is that we are seeing new ways to build successful and more appropriate tall structures that connect closely to a city’s urban fabric and local needs of people and businesses. Some towers even create new opportunities for parks or open space. Here’s a look at what else is working now in larger, taller building design — and why:

1. Designing for context and community. An expressive new generation of multifamily projects have brought more housing to underserved areas around the country, including the Bay Area. Downtown office towers should do the same, mixing uses and amenities that better reflect their neighborho ods and the people living there, and inviting public use of the plazas and streetscape.

2. Engaging with the city. At the streetscape, the waterfront, and even at the skyline, the best buildings embrace their context and the life surrounding them. More tall buildings now have terraces, public places, pass-throughs and vertical neighborhoods that animate and engage city life. The large terraces at Park Tower, the new museumlike interiors of historic 350 Bush Street, and the video beacon atop Salesforce offer varied ideas of how new office buildings can reflect and even heighten San Francisco’s vitality.

3. Celebrating outdoor culture. San Francisco offers so many unique qualities for residents and visitors alike, among them her dynamic street life and open-air magnetism. Successful new buildings must do the same, oriented to the flow of activity and engendering interaction and the lively community culture with larger and more varied outdoor spaces, including for shared and public uses. This is especially true in urban centers, where a lack of at-grade outdoor space can be overcome with upper-floor terraces and rooftop gardens, or where forgotten waterfront zones can become a city’s largest public landscaped areas.

In this way, the Transbay district creates a world-class example of how landscaped open area, plazas and parks integrate with thousands of new, well-paid jobs for folks arriving by mass transit — instead of bleak freeway ramps.

4. Dense and vertical is the future. Building taller and creating vertical neighborhoods represents the sustainable future of all great cities, and it has a place in the Bay Area, too. San Francisco’s new Tall Buildings Safety Strategy, unveiled last month and the first ever in the United States, shows leadership and a path forward for earthquake preparedness. Plus the recent emergence of towers and larger mixed-use buildings points toward effective solutions for economic growth, a valuable mix of uses, as well as the affordability and attainability of new housing.

On top of these new directions, San Francisco enjoys a long tradition of meaningful, landmark high-rise buildings, from Coit’s concrete beacon to the Ferry Building’s Beaux-Arts clock tower. When completed in 1898, the Call Building’s ornate spire (now stripped down as Central Tower) reached the highest of any structure west of the Mississippi. And while the Transamerica Pyramid had its share of local detractors while in planning, it remains an international symbol of San Francisco ascendant, “an architectural icon of the best sort — one that fits its location and gets better with age,” wrote the critic John King a decade ago.

Things have changed since 1972 when Transamerica’s icon debuted. Today’s real estate development is about a new kind of innovation — call it responsiveness — creating places that complement their neighborhoods, enrich their urban context, and uplift people and local companies and institutions. The best towers and large buildings reflect their cultures and places in ways we can see and experience. While they remain an extraordinary challenge for cities, developers, and architects, new towers that fully recognize San Francisco’s unique cultural and social needs and address innovative trends in business and engineering, can only make San Francisco better

To build on the recent momentum of growth, and to draw more companies and talent to locate in the Bay Area, we should encourage those building tall. We should balance those undertakings with responsive planning and city management. As we’ve seen in Chicago and Shanghai, better large-scale (and high-rise) development can activate communities, improve the public realm and outdoors, and extend a city’s legacy.

James Goettsch, FAIA, is the chairman and co-CEO, and Scott Seyer, AIA, LEED AP, is a principal and senior project designer with Goettsch Partners, also known as GP, the globally active architecture and design firm working throughout the United States and in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and South America. Both are noted experts in high-rise building design with award-winning projects globally.

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