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Old Posted May 27, 2006, 6:16 AM
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Framing debate on new towers for S.F. skyline
John King, Chronicle Urban Design Writer

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Let's get one thing straight: San Francisco doesn't need another extra-tall tower, or three. Eye-popping skyscrapers won't make the natural setting more scenic or neighborhoods like North Beach more vibrant.

But as planners explore the idea of a 1,000-foot-plus tower near First and Mission streets, remember that tall buildings aren't un-San Franciscan, either. And if they make sense anywhere downtown, this is the place.

Those two points should frame the public debate about allowing three towers taller than the Transamerica Pyramid as part of the effort to fund a new Transbay Terminal for buses and trains from outside San Francisco. This is an opportunity to create great architecture -- but the towers need to be judged on the merits of whether they also serve the greater good.

The fact that skyline-transforming landmarks are being discussed shows another thing: The terrorists who flew planes into the World Trade Center didn't change the financial and psychological allure of tall buildings.

That wasn't supposed to be the case after Sept. 11, 2001 and the grim sight of 110-story structures dissolving in flames. Pundits somberly equated towers with targets, especially ones that rose above the crowd. One particularly exuberant Cassandra, author James Kunstler, proclaimed that "the age of skyscrapers is at an end. ... It must now be considered an experimental building typology that has failed."

Instead, cities across the globe are more open to height than ever before. In London, best known for its historic neighborhoods, a 1,004-foot-high tower next to London Bridge is expected to start construction next year. In Chicago -- never shy about scraping the sky -- a 2,000-foot corkscrew-shaped residential tower was approved last month that, if built, will be 600 feet taller than Sears Tower, the world's tallest building from 1974 until 1996.

Even smaller cities such as Sacramento and Louisville, Ky., are getting in the game. Often the landmarks-to-be are designed by well-known architects; in Sacramento, one is the work of Daniel Libeskind -- best known for crafting a master plan to rebuild the World Trade Center site.

The upward push is fueled by everything from the fading immediacy of Sept. 11 to the argument that dense downtown development might slow suburban sprawl. There's also the urge to show off -- for developers to act like big shots (see: Donald Trump) or cities to beckon for attention on the global stage.

There was a hint of this when San Francisco Planning Director Dean Macris made his first public presentation Thursday of the idea of raising heights in the area around First and Mission streets.

The plan would allow three towers above 850 feet, one of which would climb an additional 150 feet -- or more -- above the two others. Macris and other officials said the extra height could generate roughly $250 million in additional revenues to help build a new Transbay Terminal and extend commuter rail lines from the peninsula to the financial district.

But Macris also said bold new towers might freshen San Francisco's image.

"Cities are in a competitive global arrangement these days," Macris said on Friday. "We count enormously on our cable cars and our topography and all of that, but we are in fact a city. And the buildings in a city make an enormous difference to where people go and what they see and do. ... We have not paid a lot of attention to the drama of our skyline."

But drama cannot be the goal as planning evolves around First and Mission streets.

The most important factor in evaluating plans for a taller skyline is whether the result will improve how San Francisco looks and feels -- on the ground as well as in the air. There should be public spaces that offer respite from the downtown swirl and design guidelines so that the towers are lean and elegant and don't block important views.

The last thing we need are refrigerator boxes similar to what's on Market Street -- but 500 feet taller.

Seismic safety is critical as well: Would any sites pose engineering dangers? Modern skyscrapers often are the best buildings to be in during an earthquake because they're attached to the ground and designed with overlapping webs of protection. But there's no room for error.

Finally, the public benefits must be clear. There needs to be a trade-off for letting certain towers (and developers) stand out above the rest.

That's what is intriguing about the still-sketchy plan. New towers would help the Transbay project, which is behind schedule. And the show-offs wouldn't be high-rise intruders in a low-rise nook: They'd be at the junction of the traditional Financial District and the approved residential towers of Rincon Hill to the south.

In other words, there's a legitimate case to be made for raising heights near the terminal, especially after seismic and safety issues are reviewed.

But it's not essential to San Francisco's self-image, much less its global reputation, that such a change occur. This is a city that always has been measured by its visceral appeal rather than the way it thrusts into the sky.

If planners are serious about reshaping the skyline, do it to create a better city -- not to sell postcards or to thrill the erector set.

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference."-Robert Frost
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