Engineered by Planning and adopted back in 2012, San Francisco’s Transit Center District Plan (TCDP) was designed to limit the number of tall buildings that would rise above the city’s downtown core, with building heights stepping down from the Salesforce/Transbay Transit Center Tower to establish a rolling skyline when viewed from afar.

As part of the TCDP, the height limit for the PG&E block bounded by Mission, Main, Beale and Market was set at 400 feet. And as noted by Planning in their preliminary review of the plans for an 818-foot-tall tower to rise at 50 Main Street, which was just completed, the tower as proposed “may conflict with City policies related to a balanced skyline as seen from key public viewpoints within the city and region.”

By invoking California’s Density Bonus Law for the height as proposed, however, the aforementioned “conflict” is likely to be rendered moot (in terms of the project being approved). But Planning is still recommending that Hines reevaluate the overall program and massing of the proposed development and present “alternatives with a lower overall height.”

In addition, it appears as though Hines will need to seek a Zoning Map amendment and/or Special Use District (SUD) for the tower as proposed, as well as for the proposed crown to top the redevelopment of the Pacific Gas and Electric tower at 77 Beale Street next door, which could be a bit more problematic. We’ll keep you posted and plugged-in.

31 thoughts on “Tower May Conflict with Skyline Policy, Alternatives Sought”
  1. I infer the first image is a rendering with Oceanside included – which of course is now going nowhere, so seems to me the Main Street tower would substitute for that.

    But more generally – oh noes, a tall (ha ha – 800′) building! In the downtown no less, whatever shall we do. This city can’t maintain roads (source: spend most of my bike commute from the Richmond to the FiDi jostling over ruts and potholes and looking down to avoid the same…), and they want to try to impose arbitrary values for a “rolling skyline” and in the process forego property tax dollars? Priceless.

    1. Regarding road maintenance, you’re incorrect. SF received a rating of “Good” or 75/100 which is higher than the regional average of 67. Google “SF road quality rating” for a source.

      1. SF street paving has gotten dramatically better over the last 10 years. Gone are the days when we threw a queen sized mattress in a pothole on Third Street and the City would let it sit there for months.

        But the City using the regional average as a comparison point seems a little like celebrating the SF Giants beat a kids little league team.

        The regional ‘average’ is made up of cities like Oakland and Richmond where median income is half of SF and the miles of paving per Capita is triple. 🙂

      2. So we’re better than the worst. Your generalized statistic doesn’t substitute for my real-world experience noted above. Biking on *major* streets – Fulton, Market, Noe, etc. – I have to spend an inordinate amount of time looking down (away from other potential hazards such as cars and peds) to make sure I can steer around rim-popping potholes and tire-throwing ruts, not to mention the interminable uneven meter and utility hole covers.

        And yes there has been some slow improvement in repaving – portions of Anza and Cabrillo, for instance – though in the latter case, between 8th and 11th, the new paving is often more uneven than what was there before – clearly a product of the lowest bidder, with no city oversight or quality control.

  2. The Oceanwide tower to the left may never get built. The project recently went into receivership after a buyer couldn’t be found. There are many lawsuits. This could drag out for years and the entitlements lapse. Does SF need another office tower and one with a million square feet of space at that? No – Citicorp just announced it is giving up half of its SF footprint as that trend continues.

    Botom line, the PG&E housing tower is more likely to actually be built and it would provide the step down Oceanwide would otherwise have done.

    1. Having broken ground, the entitlements are secured. And with the foundation having been poured, the Oceanwide tower will get built. By who and when are different matters.

      And if your central argument against Oceanwide getting built anytime soon is that San Francisco doesn’t need another tower with one million square feet of office space (which was designed to be topped with condos), keep in mind that the sister project to the 50 Main Street tower is…the redevelopment of the one-million-square-foot office tower next door.

      1. Saying “And with the foundation having been poured, the Oceanwide tower will get built. By who and when are different matters” is a pretty strong statement. Just because construction has begin doesn’t mean a tower project will be completed.

        As an example, the Fordham Spire project at 400 N. Lake Shore Drive in Chicago had construction stopped after it was begun and the project was never completed, even after it changed hands.

        1. Ha, thanks I was just about to raise that example. A paved hole in the ground for 13 years now (and of course that means that at this point any exposed steel would probably have to be extracted and replaced, even *if* someone were to re-start construction).

        2. We stand by the statement, particularly for the specific site and project in question.

          In addition, while the (overly) ambitious 2000-foot-tall Spire project in Chicago was abandoned, two towers, rising up to 875 feet in height, are now slated to rise on the 400 Lake Shore site and the ground is to be re-broken next year.

          1. I don’t think anyone was saying the parcel would remain unbuilt for all time – but by your own rebuttal, citing two different towers slated to rise in lieu of the Spire, that’s a distinct point from saying “the Oceanwide tower will get built”.

          2. Again, it was a site and project specific statement. That’s not to say the design or programming couldn’t change, and perhaps we shouldn’t have said “Oceanwide.” But based on it’s location, zoning and progress to date, we’d bet on a 900-foot-tall tower rising on the “Oceanwide” site.

      2. Eventually when all the legal issues are settled something will be built there. Never let a good foundation go to waste. Will it be an office tower? No, far more likely a residential project. Spec office space has seen its day in SF. Unless a major tenant can be found new office projects will not be brought forward. Even entitled projects are on hold. 88 Bluxome’s developer said they would not move forward w/o a lease commitment. Maybe realizing they aren’t going to get one from an office tenant they are now modifying their plans to turn the project into lab space and hence eliminating the proposed underground tennis courts. The latter is not sitting well with the community so whether Planning grants their requested modifications remains to be seen.

    2. Or less unlikely, as the Pessimist thinks.

      All this having been said, mewonders if maybe a zoning scheme that relies on artsy concepts like “rolling skyline” – and, more to the point, seemingly shows contempt for fundamental concepts like “equal treatment” by essentially making your property value contingent on the roll of the dice of precisely where its located and when it was developed – might have finally met its match…and prods some Supreme Court to just say “No…you can’t do that”.

      1. I don’t think you understand zoning. Almost every parcel in SF has different conditions than the one across the street and gets treated differently. And to those who say the PG&E building on the eastern edge of the downtown hill can substitute for the Oceanside on the western edge, your don’t know how carefully the urban form was considered in the Downtown Plan as amended by the Transbay Plan. Now, an 800’ tower might be fine on the skyline, but clearly Planning has looked at it and has concerns.

        1. The Court has also overturned zoning laws when governments have imposed them in an arbitrary or capricious fashion

          So maybe you don’t understand the Law; or more likely you do, and it’s unwise to imply too much from a single comment…particularly one loaded down with qualifiers like “mewonders”®, and “might” (hint, hint). The essence of the power to zone is based on the State’s Police Powers to protect public welfare, and while I don’t doubt many will defend urban form as within that scope, I also don’t doubt many will say it isn’t. Who would win – should the question be litigated…we’ll just to have to wait and see.

          1. I think it is you Notcom, who doesn’t understand zoning and the kind of situation that “arbitrary and capricious” would apply to. There is nothing here remotely in the ballpark of even invoking that.

            We have here a case of a property that was zoned to a maximum height of 400′ decades ago, along with dozens (hundreds?) of adjacent properties, as a result of a multi-year study on density, transportation, and environmental and human quality of downtown San Francisco (ie the Downtown Plan adopted in 1985). It doesn’t remotely come close to being “arbitrary and capricious.” In fact that plan was heralded nationally as the benchmark for well-considered and thoughtful planning and zoning.

            The Transit Center District plan, again was a multi-year, well-considered very public effort that culminated in amendments to the 1985 Plan in 2012, that included raising the height limits on some parcels (not including this one) and density limits on hundreds of parcels (including this one). The policy rationale for these changes was very clearly spelled out in studies, plans, presentations, and debates at public hearings for years. Again, hardly arbitrary or capricious.

            There is absolutely, without any shred of a doubt, no case to be made that the absence of raising the height limit on a particular property was somehow imposing a burden on that property owner or a mis-use of the police power. You seem to be arguing that the zoning police power of looking out for the public welfare should not permit the government to impose building height limits on any property period. That argument is simply nonsensical and DOA. I think no majority of any court, whether liberal or trumpist, will go along with that argument, as they all own houses that they don’t want someone building a massive wall of a high rise next to either.

          2. I think Hmm explained it better than I did. In rereading my comment I regret that I stated that Notcom did not understand zoning. That was unnecessary and I apologize.

      2. Lines have to be drawn somewhere. That’s zoning. By definition there are differently treated properties. The Supreme Court affirmed this ability of local jurisdictions to adopt zoning over 100 years ago.

        It’s not “unfair” that your property does not get zoned to allowed a 1,000′ tower and zoned for a “mere” 400′. My property is zoned for 40′. Is that unfair that my house is not zoned to allow for a 400′ tower? Or that my property is not zoned to allow an amazon warehouse?

        If your property happens to be rezoned to allow a taller building at some later date, lucky you, but it’s not unfair that your property does not get rezoned. You bought your property knowing what it is zoned for. I bought my house knowing it’s zoned for 40′ just like the new owners of the PG&E block bought a lot zoned for 400′.

  3. The developer cannot invoke the State Density Bonus and still require a zoning map amendment or special use district. State Density Bonus is only allowed based on a code-conforming project that requires no variances, legislation or other exceptions.

    By definition, if they need zoning amendment legislation such as described, it is obviously not code conforming and they have no right to use the state law to force the city to approve their plans. Those things are mutually exclusive. If they seriously thought they could use the state density law they wouldn’t need any legislation.

  4. I agree with the planning [department]. I think 800′ is way too high for a building that close to the water, especially after all that planning in making the skyline slope down in height with salesforce tower being the tallest.

    1. This building is 500 feet closer to the water and 250 feet shorter. How steep exactly does the downslope need to be in your mind?

  5. Anything that keeps Salesforce from being the only tall building down there should be permitted! Maybe the plan worked if Salesforce wasn’t so ugly, but sometimes plans need to change.

  6. What is it about sloping down that makes a skyline “nicer”? I get that packing too many towers into a small space could lead to an extremely claustrophobic atmosphere. But I’m struggling with this. Anyone know of any images of unsightly downtowns due to a lack of slope?

    1. Of course aesthetics are subjective – some might say part of the beauty of the Chicago skyline (from the lake) or the Manhattan skyline from off the southern end of the island is that they rise up immediately from the shoreline, instead of stepping up gradually.

      That said, I can see the appeal of a skyline that rises in steps *from the waterfront*. That’s completely different, though, than having a stepped skyline when viewed from the interior of the city. And again, even then, the appeal (or not) of both those perspectives is completely arbitrary and subjective.

      1. It might be subjective, but it’s not arbitrary. There are dozens of pages in plans explaining the rationale. Arbitrary is where any random selected lot in the city gets any height limit it wants because that’s what the property owner wants and then you can’t read the city landscape or negotiate around by looking at it, it’s all a big undifferentiated mishmash or forest of towers, and the only way to figure out where you are is with Google Maps.

        And if you think the art and beauty of the cityscape is not important, well that’s also just sad I have to say. There are plenty of cities around the world that don’t really care and just look like any other urban agglomeration. This city doesn’t have to become one of them.

        1. I said that the “perspective” is arbitrary and subjective, not that the current standard is arbitrary. The point of my entire comment was that aesthetics – including here what makes an attractive skyline – is subjective.

          And in that vein at no point did I say “the art and beauty of the cityscape is not important”; indeed to the contrary I cited the skylines of Chicago and Manhattan as being regarded as attractive and appealing.

  7. I think it’s crazy that we’d force a building in downtown to reduce height and reduce the number of people who can live in it because of concerns about a “balanced skyline”. Lots of great cities have wonderful skylines without needing to force a particular definition of balance on them.

    1. Alternatively if the same project could be sited elsewhere that enhances the skyline it becomes a win-win.

  8. So it looks like they did not come back with “alternatives with a lower overall height”. Instead they went with much taller. ‘I believe what you asked us for is 248 feet taller and to be just as tall as Salesforce if we heard you right’

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