Deja vu and SoMa’s second chance
Earlier this year, Salesforce’s seemingly sudden decision to abandon plans for a new 2-million-square-foot campus at Mission Bay raised immediate concerns about San Francisco’s already tightening office market—and some murmurs of relief. Although the proposed campus was largely viewed as a positive addition to the Mission Bay district’s uneven collection of buildings, even some fans of Ricardo Legorreta’s distinctive architecture had qualms about living with that much Legorreta. Still others felt that the booming company’s continued presence downtown, in existing buildings, would better serve the city’s long-term development than a sprawling single-tenant campus. Whether or not one shares these views, Salesforce and other expanding businesses, like their dot-com predecessors, have the potential to reshape the city’s South of Market and eastern neighborhoods. Making the most of this opportunity requires a more comprehensive view of what makes cities vital and livable.
Jobs don’t equal a neighborhood. After the economic blows of the past few years, Salesforce’s commitment to staying in San Francisco—along with Twitter, Zynga and a host of exploding start-ups—is undeniably cause for celebration. Yet beyond the much-coveted jobs, with all their contingent economic benefits for the city, one shouldn’t assume that these new headquarters will spark socially and culturally enriching development.
The tech and housing booms of the late 1990s and 2000s brought a transformative wave of commercial office buildings and multi-family housing development to South of Market, but with few exceptions, the new development failed to overcome the area’s large blocks and traffic-dominated streets to achieve that holy grail of urban planning, “a vibrant urban district.” In fact, with few exceptions the rising tides barely lifted Western SoMa and Mid-Market neighborhoods in any permanent way.
In 2007, when the San Francisco Federal Building opened at Seventh and Mission Streets, many anticipated that the 605,000-square-foot office building, accommodating thousands of workers, would stimulate new development in the long-struggling Mid-Market redevelopment area. While Morphosis’s bold architecture made the corner a new destination for architects, the building’s desolate plaza with its forlorn cafe—turned away from the street—failed to emerge as an active public space that engages the neighborhood. And little seemed to change in the surrounding blocks.
Now Twitter’s move to the historic San Francisco Furniture Mart at Tenth and Market Streets has sparked high hopes for Mid-Market, and everyone is betting big. The formidable, 11-story art deco building totals 775,000 square feet, including 200,000 square feet of ground level retail, according to the owner’s web site. Twitter is reportedly fitting out 200,000 square feet with an eye toward occupying 400,000 in the future.
Once a bustling hub of home decoration, the SF Mart, in recent years, became a symbol of Market Street’s struggles. Earlier schemes to resurrect the SF Mart as luxury condos were squashed by the economic collapse, and its continuing lifelessness radiates into the surrounding streets. Presumably this will change for the better when Twitter’s 800 workers move in, driving local demand for pour-over coffee, coconut water, kimchee tacos and made-to-order salads. The promise alone has changed the fortunes of the venerable art deco building, whose remaining floors and long-vacant retail have already found new takers, according to recent reports. But as existing buildings fill up and new buildings rise to meet continued demand, the scale of these headquarters and how they integrate into the city are the crux of the opportunity and the challenge.
At 1.5 million square feet, the 52-story Bank of America tower (completed by SOM in 1969 and now marketed as 555 California) is just three-quarters the size of the campus Salesforce had proposed at Mission Bay. Yet as the much smaller SF Mart shows, when this square footage is translated into a single mid-rise, larger-floorplate building—the kind allegedly favored by tech companies—the massing can become, well, massive.
SF Mart was constructed in the 1930s, and its historic status limits the potential of dramatically rethinking the way its ground-floor spaces engage the street. But whether a building is existing or new, one can imagine a ground-level amenity strategy that also serves as a catalyzing force for struggling blocks. With the trend towards co-locating incubator space alongside mothership companies, these coffee shops, restaurants, and yoga studios could become the living room for a larger business community, while also serving local residents. Similarly recent developments such as Mint Plaza, designed by CMG Landscape Architecture, illustrate the synergistic potential of merging public space with commercial endeavors.
Streets for People or Cars? How buildings meet the street is critical, but the greater challenge to making SoMa a vibrant district are its wide multi-lane, one-way streets that are programmed to funnel cars from the freeway to other parts of the city. By prioritizing commuter traffic over SoMa’s residents, businesses and workers, these roadways doom the district to being a less livable neighborhood.
The Central Corridor Project, an ongoing initiative led by the San Francisco Planning Department, is the latest effort to tackle the challenge of accommodating economic growth, quality of life, and transportation in SoMa. Proposed land-use scenarios for the 24-block area bound by Mission, Townsend, Second and Sixth streets emphasize the development of lower-height, large floorplate commercial buildings (think Foundry Square), though buildings could reach higher near future Central Subway stops along Fourth Street. Although the options under consideration are more pragmatic than visionary the proposed streetscape improvements and open space opportunities offer the possibility of dramatically enhancing the way people experience the district.
Explaining how the Central Corridor Project compliments or contradicts other recent SoMa planning efforts could fuel an entire blog. These initiatives include the 2011 Yerba Buena Street Life Plan led by CMG, the 2006 Transbay Streetscape and Open Space Plan led by ZGF and Marta Fry Landscape Associates, and the community-led Western SoMa Community Plan, currently undergoing EIR review, and its companion Western SoMa Neighborhood Transportation Plan, which the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Authority adopted in March. But at a high level they collectively underscore SoMa’s role as a vital piece of San Francisco’s economic and cultural future, and one that is undermined by its legacy as a district to be bypassed in cars rather than experienced.
Beyond reinvigorating the city’s job base and economy, this new tech boom offers San Francisco the opportunity to chart a new course for SoMa by addressing the fundamental issues that lay beyond the property lines. As we celebrate the recovering economy, let’s not lose sight of the big picture.