Anyone who works in or has strolled through South of Market, especially around the shabby Transbay Terminal, knows there’s not much space for nostalgia. Romanticized memories of the old San Francisco give way daily to the upward thrust of The City’s skyline.
The terminal itself, at ground level, will transform into a modern transportation hub that will continue to serve Greyhound buses (well, maybe some nostalgia) as well as,it is hoped, high-speed rail. Astride all that bustle will stand a colossus expected to be one of the tallest buildings on the West Coast, relegating the Transamerica Pyramid to an architectural second fiddle.
Old SoMa already has been replaced, largely, by these gleaming structures. And yet, as newer skeletal structures grow their glass skins day by day, we ready ourselves for even more of this vertical race. Mission Street, First Street, Fremont Street — if there’s a developable spot on them you can be sure permit applications have been filed and probably approved.
Obviously, an intense demand drives this construction. For world-class cities, San Francisco is surprisingly compact. Available space, both business and residential, can only be layered upward, the sky and safety being the limits. And to think, all this just more than five years after the 9/11 disaster in New York City led many critics to predict that the architectural future would be horizontal.
There’s another telling paradox about this. All the upward growth in this part of The City responded to enticements by the municipal government. You might say that the elevated SoMa is Exhibit A in the political class’s need to show that, somewhere at least, The City is not as hostile to business as it’s reputed to be.
Still, as developers take advantage of various incentives, and as The City exacts promises from them to measure up to "green" and community expectations, there is a counter movement. Businesses, as reported in Monday’s Examiner, look increasingly south to the Peninsula because there city officials haven’t heaped on them taxes, fees and costs associated with health care and paid sick leave.
They search as well for warehouse space, growing scarcer and scarcer in The City. So far Brisbane, South San Francisco and other smaller cities south of, well, SoMa can step up with enough acreage to satisfy those needs. The City seems content to bid themfarewell, even as its political leaders expect the mixture of commercial, professional and residential occupants to transform streets into which, not many years ago, few wanted to venture.
And so the trade-offs, concerning which lovers of old and new San Francisco can feel some ambivalence. The nostalgics have lost, but they make it imperative for the planners and developers to create humane and lovable spaces.
Meantime, we’re thrilled by the tangible optimism all around us.