The doors won’t open for another year, but Salesforce Tower already commands attention.
You see it from the East Bay, a still-rising work in progress that shrugs off everything nearby. From North Beach or Telegraph Hill, it looms behind the Transamerica Pyramid. And from the south, it’s the serene centerpiece to a skyline that looks nothing like it did a decade ago.
The issue isn’t simply a matter of scale. It’s the physical embodiment of San Francisco as a 21st century global city, one where the built terrain has a topographical presence all its own.
Salesforce Tower at First and Mission streets is the obvious high point, with its concrete core topped out at 961 feet. The structure of what eventually will be the highest floor — it’s 61 extra-tall stories, if you’re counting — is being installed this week, though it will be March before the outer walls taper up past the core to the ultimate height of 1,070 feet.
But this smooth, steep edifice won’t be a lone spike on the mesa.
Thursday, there’s a ceremonial groundbreaking for a complex half a block up First Street that will include a 910-foot mixed-use tower — also topping the 853-foot Pyramid — and a 625-foot-tall hotel. It’s called Oceanwide Center, and the amenities will include a public plaza underneath the main tower, which will be hiked 68 feet above the sidewalk.
Next week, with less fanfare, workers will attach a 50-foot spire to the summit of 181 Fremont St., a slender climb of offices and condominiums now under construction. When this occurs, 181 Fremont St. will be taller than the brown granite crag at 555 California St. built for Bank of America in the late 1960s, which for more than 40 years played runner-up to the Transamerica Pyramid on the list of downtown peaks.
Toss in the half-dozen other current or potential construction sites within the neighborhood and the herd of glass high-rises on the north slope of Rincon Hill, and this is not your parents’ San Francisco.
Policy wonks can rattle off the reasons for the shift, which was mapped out in plans for the area conceived more than a decade ago.
Height limits were raised in part to help pay for the new Transbay Transit Center. Economic forces ranging from the attractions of downtown living to the ever-growing clout of Silicon Valley help explain why construction lenders are wagering that San Francisco will continue to flourish.
It’s a place where people want to be, and where investors want to have a stake — for better and for worse.
Only in the past two months, though, has the realm of architectural renderings become the stuff of everyday conversation. When dentists at 450 Sutter St. point out the newcomer to their patients, something is going on.
What I find most startling is this: The people I’ve heard from don’t seem particularly upset.
The sheer girth might cause a double-take — as one mostly fan says, “You can see that sucker everywhere.” But there’s not the horror that accompanied One Rincon’s solitary ascension alongside the Bay Bridge in 2007, much less the antiheight ballot initiatives that were a staple of city elections in the 1970s.
A big factor, I suspect, is that the current fights are elsewhere. Activists are more concerned about the displacement of low-income residents and small businesses in the neighborhoods like the Mission than shadows cast by a few big towers along Mission Street.
It might help that what’s going up doesn’t seem garish. Salesforce Tower is by Pelli Clarke Pelli, one of the nation’s most accomplished architectural firms. The design team for Oceanwide Center is headed by London’s blue-chip Foster and Partners (Foster’s San Francisco associate, Heller Manus, is the architect of 181 Fremont).
Nor did Salesforce Tower and its constructed foothills crush a beloved part of the city. Quite the opposite. The changes have enlivened an area that was terra incognita to just about everyone except commuters scurrying to and from the old Transbay Terminal’s concrete hulk. Now there’s activity on the streets by day and by night, with residents as well as workers.
At a deeper level, the emerging skyline underscores how today’s San Francisco isn’t quite so inward-focused as in the past.
This remains a city where the watchdogs aren’t shy about doing battle on a variety of fronts, and that’s a good thing. But the simplistic notion that height is bad is long out of date — that horse left the barn when all those blunt towers north of Market Street overwhelmed the 1920s skyline.
The planning for the Transbay District and Rincon Hill sought to make room for concentrated growth with easy access to mass transit. And yes, planners gave thought to how it all would look.
“What we wanted to do was create a peak at Transbay and a saddle from there to Rincon Hill” with height dropping toward Folsom Street and then climbing up the slope, said former planning Director Dean Macris. “This was a chance to deal aesthetically with the skyline.”
We’re still a few years from seeing how the design moves play out. But Salesforce Tower and 181 Fremont and Oceanwide Center make it clear that the map of San Francisco — and the image it presents to the world — is being redrawn once again.