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Old Posted Nov 1, 2006, 1:00 AM
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Location: Richmond/Eureka, CA
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Only 'starchitects' need apply to do transit hub design

John King

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Bay Area could be "starchitect" central next year.

The reason? The quest for a new Transbay Terminal -- one of those ongoing San Francisco sagas that, wonder of wonders, is beginning to look as if it will happen. Wednesday the competition begins to select an architect to design a new transit hub at First and Mission streets, and a skyscraping tower to help pay for it. The competition also seeks a deep-pocket developer to build the tower.

And with a project of this scale and complexity, only heavyweights need apply.

One celebrity architect expected to surface is Santiago Calatrava, a Spanish master renowned for sculptural imagery; his major American project right now is a soaring train station being built at the World Trade Center site. Other rumored big names include England's Norman Foster (whose firm has two sleek academic buildings at Stanford University) and Cesar Pelli, whose 560 Mission St. is one of San Francisco's best office towers.

At this point, the only players we know for sure are the seven jury members approved Friday by the Transbay Joint Power Authority. The group includes local architect Alison Williams, real estate economist Jerry Keyser and UC Davis Professor Susan Handy, an expert on transportation and land use.

The jury's architects stress that what will unfold over the next 10 months isn't a beauty contest.

"I'm glad design is paramount, because the program is extremely complicated," says Williams, a principal in the San Francisco office of Perkins + Will. She refers to the technical demands of a terminal that folds in bus routes, commuter trains from San Mateo County and, possibly, high-speed rail -- as well as a smooth fit with a tower next door that could exceed 1,000 feet in height, on a narrow site crowded by other towers.

"This is so structurally driven, it's not strictly an architectural pursuit," Williams says. "The design has to be tethered to the other disciplines."

The same point is made by Hsin-Ming Fung, whose firm Hodgetts + Fung is one of Los Angeles' top design houses.

"The station is really an engineering feat," Fung says. "It's not just wrapping a skin around a project. It's about solving a problem and working with other concerns."

Competing teams must submit their qualifications on Jan. 11; the jury will then select finalists who will present design proposals and financial offers in July. The schedule calls for selection of a design and development team in mid-August.

So if you see a dapper archi-type standing around First and Mission, elegant sketchbook in hand, you'll know why.

In an age where "edgy" and "ironic" are all the rage, a word like "beautiful" might seem quaint. But when the group San Francisco Beautiful handed out its annual awards this month, we were reminded that beauty can be civil and creative as well.

Friedel Klussmann, immortalized in countless Herb Caen columns as the woman who saved San Francisco's cable car system from extinction after World War II, founded the group in 1947. This year's awards focused on open space -- and the ingenuous passion of the city's residents.

The top award went to Octavia Boulevard, where a freeway was replaced last year by a landscaped thoroughfare after years of neighborhood activism. That change is still in progress -- lots alongside it will be filled by housing, for instance -- but it's already ignited the revival of Hayes Valley.

On a much smaller sale, the Robert C. Friese Award for Neighborhood Conservation went to the Quesada Gardens Initiative: one block of the crime-plagued Bayview neighborhood where residents turned a dumping ground for debris into a riot of flowers and vegetables and trees.

Other beautification awards went to Yerba Buena Gardens, the tile steps on 16th Avenue in Golden Gate Heights, the restoration of Mission Creek, the Newsom administration's street-greening initiatives and recent landscaping improvements at Candlestick Point. All are deserved.

Finally, a pre-election plug for a worthy cause: the proposed quarter-cent sales tax in Marin and Sonoma to turn long-empty train routes into a 70-mile commuter rail system between Larkspur and Cloverdale.

Yes, it would cost nearly $500 million to launch the line, its 14 stations and a parallel pedestrian-bike trail. No, highway congestion won't magically dissolve. But Measure R absolutely deserves support because it will help preserve the North Bay's cultural heritage.

What exists along the Highway 101 corridor today isn't the sort of undifferentiated sprawl that smears the South Bay. Rather, a string of unique communities have preserved their roots despite the pressure of growth. And a new thread of passenger rail would strengthen the fabric that still exists -- by underlying the importance of town centers, of low-key urbanity, of cities that grow in instead of out (development sites are adjacent to several potential stations, the perfect spot for new housing).

As for the sniping of opponents that the projected ridership of 5,300 passengers a day isn't worth the cost, consider this. When a light-rail service opened in the southwest Denver region in 2000, first-year ridership topped projections by 70 percent.

If you build it, they will ride.

Measure R translates to a transportation alternative and an investment in local communities. Not bad for a quarter-cent.
Reject the lesser evil and fight for the greater good like our lives depend on it, because they do!
-- Dr. Jill Stein, 2016 Green Party Presidential Candidate
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