Should San Francisco Get Taller?

One Rincon

Some San Franciscans don’t want a new cluster of skyscrapers. Robert Selna and John King describe the heated controversy that engulfs the city’s plans for its heart. Architects, developers, and people who already live downtown come out in droves, for public meetings. There could be as many as seven (another source says 13) new towers amid the skyline, and some of them could be as high as 800 feet, or about one-third again as tall as the 550-foot limit presently dictates. And then there’s the Transbay tower, a proposed 1,200-foot behemoth. The complete plan is at the San Francisco Planning Department’s website.

One of the goals, say Selna and King, is to make the city center more amenable to mass transit:

The rebuilt transit center is scheduled to open for bus service in 2014. The overall budget for that phase of the project is $1.2 billion, $411 million of which is expected from land sales….The second phase, in theory, brings Caltrans commuter service and a high-speed rail line to the terminal by 2018….Tax revenue from the new buildings would help pay for part of the multibillion-dollar transit hub intended to serve bus passengers from around the Bay Area and rail commuters from the Peninsula and farther south.

Some say even transportation is a minor consideration compared to the projected demand for office space. Howard and Mission are the two streets most affected, though the plan includes an area bounded by Market, Main, Clementina and New Montgomery Streets. Even in a best-case scenario (best, that is, for those who want more skyscrapers) the first breaking of ground could not occur before 2010, and a lot could happen before then.

One argument for a general height increase is a desire to reconfigure the skyline of downtown San Francisco, which some consider monotonous. But developers have still been able to situate tall buildings in other parts of the city, such as the 641-foot One Rincon Hill South Tower (see photo – it’s the shiny one). A good argument could also be made, that how a city looks from the air is the least important thing about it.

Historic preservation has to be considered, along with a reduction in vehicle traffic and an increase in space for pedestrians. As for the height increase, some people simply feel that enough is enough. Discussing an important issue, the shadows that would fall on public parks, an issue which supposedly had already been settled by law back in 1984, Selna and King say:

While studies are still being done on what shadows would occur at different times of the year in different locations, the likely loss of sunlight prompted planners to pull heights down from what some developers had sought – though some new shadows would be unavoidable.

Question: given the current state of modeling software, why does it take so long to figure out where shadows would fall?

photo courtesy of fredsharples , used under this Creative Commons license

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