636-648 4th Street Site

San Francisco’s Planning Department has just finished its review of the preliminary plans for a 37-story tower to rise at 636 4th Street.  And it doesn’t support what has been proposed and rendered below.

As proposed, the current K&L Wine Merchants building and adjacent Latte Express would be razed to make way for the 350-foot tower, the designs for which include 427 residential units, 3,200 square feet of commercial space fronting Fourth and Bluxome Streets and an underground garage for 119 cars.

636 - 648 4th Street Rendering

While the 636-648 4th Street site is currently only zoned for development up to 85-feet in height, it is slated to be up-zoned as part of the proposed Central SoMa Plan.  But the maximum proposed height for the site under The Plan is 250 feet, with setbacks in the massing above 85.  And Planning doesn’t appear to be amused by the extra 100 feet as proposed.

From the Planning Department’s Preliminary Assessment of the proposed tower as designed by SCB:

“The Planning Department does not support the proposed project height (350 feet) and recommends that the project be revised to both conform to the proposed high‐rise alternative height and bulk controls that require a 15‐foot setback at a maximum of 85‐foot height on all lot edges.

The project should better conform to the intent of the mid‐rise district with occasional spire‐like towers which would indicate a design with a stronger streetwall and podium.”

In addition, “the design should explore opportunities for greater activation both along Bluxome and the interior property line along the 505 Brannan mid‐block alley.”  And Planning recommends that “the project be sculpted at the top but otherwise supports the architectural intent and “quoins” expression.”

San Francisco’s Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors could, of course, approve an up-zoning for the 636 4th Street parcel to 350-feet in height and allow the project to proceed as proposed.  But it would appear as though Planning is sticking to its Plan, which could spell trouble, or at least an up-hill battle, for both this project and Kilroy’s proposed Flower Mart development as well.

68 thoughts on “Planning Balks At Proposed Height For Central SoMa Tower(s)”
  1. About time. Height limits are just that limits. The PC needs to stop granting exceptions to existing height zoning. Starting with the Gang tower next and the Hines project. Not good news for the Flower Mart project which IMO will never see the light of day.

  2. Ugh, Planning doing what it does best – sh*tting on the one good and unique design that’s offered, and urging it be turned into yet another bland box. So sick of the Planning Department acting out on their “but I wanted to be an architect!” petulance. Yes, they have a right to ask it to conform to code. But quit with the interminable design critiques.

    1. Part of that code is bulk controls, which requires setbacks. If they took this same design and applied the bulk controls, it would still be a nice building.

    2. But the general comments (other than setback issues) were in support of the basic design. Comments on activation of the street frontages are absolutely within the purview of a planning staff….unless you think blank walls are the way to go.

    3. … and the comment about how it needs to conform to the “spire-like” aesthetic desired by Planning, and how it should have a sculpted top… yes, except for all of those things, they hardly commented on it at all.

    4. Couldn’t agree more. 37 stories is definitely not too high for this transit rich location and the design is outstanding. It is a tragedy that the Planning Dept gets to kill another worthy project which would help resolve the housing crisis. They pay lip service to the housing crisis and when a good project comes along, they kill it. Its utter stupidity.

    1. Let’s not get vapors here. A defeat for humanity is a boat full or refugees capsizing and killing 150 people. Kicking a project back for redesign? Not so much.

      1. I think he was being sarcastic. This is different than calling the Board of Supervisors Communist, which is a statement of fact.

  3. that sucks. this building looks so cool as is. plus its in an area that should be denser/taller. i always agree with making it more “pedestrian / street life friendly” but they should just let it go as is! 350 is really not that tall.

  4. this is the most transit rich part of the city. the fact that these towers aren’t twice this tall is a crying shame. more underdevelopment for the city!

  5. Omg sculpted tops; hasn’t their been turnover in planning since the 80s beauty contests which dictated cutesy dreck? They really learn about sculpted tops in Planning or is this a Lego exercise. As for the fear of height….

    1. Exactly, which is why we need to put a stop to the crap like the stoppage of the 8 Washington project (complied with zoning), etc.

  6. I agree that if there are height limits they should be honored – every developer asks for exceptions and then complain about the hassle of getting stuff built. I guess I don’t have the tall building fetish that others around here have. Look at 222 Second. A fine building somewhere else, but it was up zoned and now looks ridiculous squeezed into a small lot.

    Have a solid plan and stick with it, developers can work with it. There’s lots of underutilized lots in SOMA. Build more!

      1. Meaning that maybe planners don’t know the exact height that every building should be. Which is why we should abolish height limits, or at the very least upzone massive areas at one time and allow the market to decide where short and tall buildings are needed, rather than the politburo.

          1. Removing restrictions on height is certainly equivalent with removing rules, now isn’t it.

      2. Are you aware that City Planning will oppose building to the allowed zoning height? After 3 -4 years of submitting and discussing plans with City Planning, talking to the planner assigned to me, and going through the full submission process, I was told to throw my plans out and start all over again – all “they” would allow was a 5 foot height increase. Under what authority ? The claimed authority is the City Planning Guidelines which have NOT ONE WORD about the height you can build to. They abrogate this authority unto themselves. Want to oppose them? Your project will be another 5 years delayed. City Planning is nothing but a tyranny in this city. Wake up!

    1. 222 Second looks silly because it’s so short and squat, it’s a perfect example of a building that should be much taller to balance things out.

  7. This is the opportune moment for neighborhood activists to request a greater percentage of affordable units, in exchange for support of the increased height. It’d be a win-win for everyone.

  8. I kind of agree with Planning’s sentiment. 350 is huge in context—even with the possible height increase to 250′ in that area.

  9. We are in the middle of a housing crisis where people are paying up to 40% of their disposable income in rents resulting in a drag on GDP growth and we are seriously debating taking units off of the market because the building looks too tall compared to the underdeveloped lots next to it? Lot’s that are prime targets for upzoned development anyway so that in future this building probably won’t look tall and out of place.

  10. This Central area is planned as mid-rise (10 – 15 stories) as noted in the PC comment. With an occasional spire (taller building). This site is a spire site. 250 feet or 24 stories. As it is, the developer is getting a [165-foot] height bonus at 250 feet.

  11. Oh not disagreeing what the plan says…just saying that in light of the extreme mismatch between supply and demand, we desperately need to consider revisiting these restrictions and allowing exceptions to the current plan.

  12. Someone mentioned “height in context”

    The city has thrown that out when it comes to Mission Street and So. Van Ness. Less than 60 feet from that point there are residential and commercial buildings a mere 45 feet in height, yet the city is going to plant 400 foot towers there.

    1. In case you didn’t notice, there’s already a 400′ tower and a 300′ tower just up the block from Mission and south van ness. A couple of new 400′ ones will fit in perfectly fine.

  13. Not to mention this is right near Caltrain. Sigh…Tishman Speyer is trying to put up 2 400+ ft towers nearby, as well, so will it face the same battle?

    I guess give it time? Perhaps with the latest crop of high rises getting built, after we let the dust settle, maybe people will realize their life isn’t in peril with skyscrapers being constructed in a city! I would hardly call these skyscrapers compared to what gets built elsewhere.

    1. I assume the Tishman project is DOA unless they lower the heights to conform to the zoning. I think its 120 feet or so meaning Tishman will have to put up 10 or 12 story buildings or drop their plans.

      [Editor’s Note: As we originally reported, “While the 655 4th Street Site [for Tishman’s proposed tower(s)] is currently only zoned for development up to 85-feet in height, the parcel is slated to be up-zoned for building up to 400-feet as part of the City’s pending Central SoMa Plan.”

      1. Why not just change the zoning? That’s what happened on the waterfront when people didn’t want what was proposed that met the zoning, so what’s the difference with doing the opposite?

  14. Of course this doesn’t really matter… the ‘net is filed with doomsday warnings about a comet strike sometime in late September this year… somewhere near the Pacific side of the Panama Canal. Just stating what I’ve been reading of late. Oh well!

    1. Well, gay marriage and all that! If the Lord won’t send the plague of hornets demanded by one Bible Foamer, maybe the comet will do? (LOL-the insanity is amazing on the frothier fringes of the right).

  15. The area around the 4th and King Caltrain station should zoned appropriately — none of this arbitrary “85 feet height limit here, except on conditions when it’s 250 feet”. It’s laughable to think that the parcel across the street is zoned for 400 feet under the new Central SoMa plan — why not allow a site-specific variance to create a new high rise node adjacent to transit?

    It would be great if the area saw the same sort of development and interest the corners of Van Ness & Market have seen over the past few years. I think the NeMa building is too squat, particularly compared to the rest of the SF skyline.

    An urban planner should have enough of a creative sense to get an idea when the size, bulk, and height are appropriate or not for a project site. While there are good intentions behind the City’s required setbacks, height limits, bulk requirements, etc. etc., there’s no definitive rationale why 250 feet should be the “sacred” height limit number that will be permitted under the new Central SoMa plan.

    As my friends used to say in a more. . . colorful period of my life, “GO BIG OR GO HOME.” If Debra Dwyer is reading this, I hope you grant yourself a bit of creative license and permit that variance!!!

  16. I live in the midst of this. Across from the K and L Building. Under planning I will have two 450 foot towers next to me, a 350 foot tower across the street, and a 13 story building on the third side. I will get NO sunlight during the day. and wind patterns will be disrupted. Now Tishman wants access to its proposed garage over my driveway. Literally hundreds of cars a day for a 900 unit building (And that’s with the city’s ridiculous policies about parking) literally outside my window. Would YOU live with that? it’s already impossible on game days- parking is $7.00 AN HOUR. I can’t have people come visit form out of the city because there is no reasonable place to park. And advocates want people to move out to their jobs at Google. You’ll be sorry when they do leave, don’t come back, and our economy tanks again.

    Growth is inevitable, but the mass of these buildings is ridiculous and inappropriate. Do you people understand how big 35 or 45 stories is? We will obliterate sunlight in the area and create wind tunnels (Try standing at 4th and King at 5:00 pm some afternoon, you’ll literally be blown over.

    There will be no street life- it will be cold and dark all day round. And traffic will be impossible – it already is. SOMA Central plan is a great idea, but what they will build in the name of higher density and more housing is not livable.

    1. I believe the idea is for a veritable transformation of the area from current uses and nature. Maybe it’s time you started thinking of relocating if you don’t like the direction.

    2. Interesting how soma residents are speaking out against the new density. Wonder what it’ll be like once the trans bay terminal area is built up and the Warriors stadium is in full swing. I’m sensing a lot of traffic issues in/out/through soma.

      Although there is a lot of pressure to density and build up, I think there’s going to be more blowback soon. It will be interesting to see this dynamic play out over the next few years.

    3. Many are the days I have stood at 4th/King around 5 PM. I have never been blown over by the wind. (Or, since we insist on using overusing the word, “it has literally happened zero times”)

      And obliterating sunlight? Huh? I believe you are referring to a shadow. You’d be surprised to learn they’re no big deal. Cities all over the world have tall buildings.

  17. I’ve noted before how much this proposed design resembles the tower of the revised/renamed One Oak (same architectural firm) at Market and Van Ness. With respect to the latter, last weekend some quite industrious young persons spent considerable time and effort using man-lifts to paint an elaborate and very large mural over the entire face of the east wall of the four-story building on that site which would have to be demolished for the tower.

    I’m guessing that long delayed project is still years away from helping to transform that corner.

  18. All I hear from SF Government is the problem with Ellis Acts and lack of affordable housing. Here comes a developer who want to make some money and in the process will help alleviate the housing problem, and what does the City do? We need about 20 of these projects each year for the next decade to really get housing under control in SF.

  19. Where we have a plan and zoning limits, Planning should follow it – no variances. The growth/greed mentality is destroying the fabric and culture of San Francisco, and pricing out long time residents. The historic social values of the residents are still strong. We won’t follow Conway’s pied piper Lee to our destruction!

    1. I agree, the greed of the folks who pushed every avenue available to override the plan and zoning limits for 8 Washington was despicable. Hopefully at some point zoning can be followed instead of just NIMBY whims.

    2. Greed indeed!

      TI is a perfect example. That should have been developed as something special for all San Francisco. Not a wealthy enclave inaccessible to most. Big business and big government. Pelosi and others. its a sweetheart deal.

      As to variances, I’d allow them only if the added units/floors are designated at 60% BMR. The Giants saw their proposal was going down and quickly increased their BMR to 50%. They will still make a ton of money. Call the developers bluff on this stuff.

      1. You do realize the variances are just as often imposed from the other side, right? As in, developers propose something completely in line with zoning, and then planning and/or NIMBY activists force a downzone and/or redesign of the development.

        Make all development by right – no changes from either side once the zoning is agreed upon at a high level.

        1. As fanciful as your claim in the paragraph is, that is actually what happened in the case of 8 Washington; the developers revised their original complaint design at the urging of planners and the Port.

          And no, absolutely no “development by right.” That is how ultratall towers are being built on the very edge of Central Park in Manhattan. Everything must be reviewed on its merits on a case-by-case basis but certainly there must be allowances for variances upon the basis of worth.

          1. How tall is ultra tall by NYC standards? Will these cast shadows over Central park? Does anyone care in NYC?

            LA is preparing for a major up-zoning that could lead to100 story towers and Seattle too is set for a major up-zoning.

            Thankfully SF is starting to go in the other direction.

          2. Why case-by-case? Why not just decide on the heights at the edge of Central Park, make those the rules, and let developers abide by those rules? Why have the need for shifting goal posts on both sides?

          3. So if that’s not wanted, change the rules for the southern periphery to only allow lower towers. Why make it case-by-case?

        2. Which means the PC must deny the Gang tower and Hines projects’ request to exceed zoning. Hopefully they are getting the message.

      1. This is true. While seismic requirements increase the cost relative to non-earthquake zones, they don’t preclude building tall. This is true of almost any building, all the way down to two story houses.

      2. Only if everything is built perfectly and works as exactly planned.

        Looking at the $7 billion Bay Bridge with all its flaws – or 125 Crown Terrace with its corruption- not very people have faith that SF-DBI will inspect things so rigorously that there will be zero mistakes.

        1. Not really. Most aspects of building codes assume imperfection and for that reason the codes require a certain amount of over-engineering to give a margin for error. Eventually a substandard component will get into the mix, a worker will not be 100% reliable, or something will break or otherwise be compromised along the way. Even building inspectors tolerate sub-100% workmanship. For example even though the code might say the roofing plywood needs to be nailed down every X inches, the inspector will sign off on a job even if he/she sees a few missed nails (a.k.a. “shiners”).

    1. Tokyo is subject to far bigger earthquakes than San Francisco will ever see, because it’s in a subduction zone, and it’s filled with high rises (which did fine in the 2011 9.0 quake).

  20. I hope these developers keep fighting. The Central SoMa height restrictions are pretty counter intuitive given that its a public transport hub. We need more housing in dense, urban areas and raising heights in SoMa is a simple solution.

  21. I’m happy to see that there’s a desire to limit the size of these mega high rises that will change the charm and character of this neighborhood. You can still have reasonable development with the 85′ limit. If developers are allowed to build these super large structures, the personality of our neighborhood is lost forever.

    1. How so? How is it not changed forever by shortening development, thus driving up prices and making a neighborhood only for the rich? Seems like the personality of the neighborhood changes more in that scenario.

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