By Colin Blake
San Francisco is getting taller. In fact, if the city’s 15-tallest buildings were laid end-to-end, they would be over 300-feet taller than the Golden Gate Bridge is long. This growth spurt isn’t slowing down, but accelerating.
San Francisco is in its fifth-straight year of economic and population growth, according to the city’s five-year financial plan released in May. What’s more, Mayor Ed Lee’s 2015-2020 city prospectus expects continued growth for both variables in the next five years.
As a result, city planners have continued dotting the Financial District and South of Market skyline with high-rise apartments and office buildings to accommodate San Francisco’s continuing expanse – resuscitating an old term: Manhattanization.
Manhattanization refers to the symptoms of vertical growth within a dense city, much like Manhattan experienced in the 1930s, a period in time which saw the completion of some of the world’s tallest buildings, including the Empire State Building.
“The term is very specifically talking about tall buildings blocking views, blotting out the sun and shadowing the streets, just like in Manhattan,” said John King, the architecture critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.
According to King, who has covered city-planning-related issues for nearly two decades, San Francisco must build to keep pace with its economic and population growth, and has been doing so for a while. Much of what is visible this decade was set in motion in the last.
In 2005, then Mayor Gavin Newsom signed the Rincon Hill Plan, which, in conjunction with the Transbay Terminal Project and other neighborhood upgrowth from the period, is expected to add a total of 6,620 new units of housing to the area once fully developed.
The Transbay development, the larger of the two, aims to transform the South of Market neighborhood into a dense residential and mixed-use zone, creating 4,400 units of housing and 6 million square-feet of new office space.
Planners made this possible by up zoning, a special exception in the Transbay plan which changed the permissible height of structures in the area to allow for towers as tall as 550 feet.
For the Rincon Hill Plan, street-side housing, not on the crest of the hill, was up zoned to allow for eight-story buildings. This effectively tripled or quadrupled the units of housing many lots could accommodate. Two luxury apartment buildings occupy the top of Rincon Hill now – one was completed in 2008, the other in 2014. Together they have added 709 units of housing to San Francisco.
“San Francisco has targets set by the regional planning agency and the state to try and produce the amount of housing needed to keep pace with job growth,” King said.
In the past five years, nearly 45,000 new residents have called San Francisco their home. However, in that same period of time only 8,000 units of housing were added to San Francisco’s total housing stock of nearly 380,000 units.
In 2014, 91 percent of all new housing units added to the market were structures containing 20 units or more. Comparatively, in the 1990s only 60 percent of new housing stock contained structures that housed 20 or more units.
In fact, many were in the hundreds and one, the NEMA Luxury Apartments in the South of Market District, contains over 750 units. In the south of the city, the Schlage Lock Project, approved in 2014, will create over 1,670 residential units in the Visitacion Valley.
Even with construction elsewhere, the city’s 2014 housing stock analysis said that 74 percent of all new housing units were built in three downtown districts: the Financial, South of Market and Mission Bay Districts.
“There’s no turning back in the downtown area,” King said. “It’s really localized there. It’s not like the city is planning a 55-story building in the Outer Sunset District.”
For 2015, 88 percent of planned construction will consist of structures containing 20 units or more. The planning department stops differentiating beyond a unit count of 20, but building proposal records show many to be several hundred units in capacity.
According to King, these larger buildings have the benefit of bringing people closer to transportation, city services and jobs. The drawback being, to some, is that the look and feel of the city is completely changed.
“If you’re going to live in a city, you can’t expect your view not to change,” King said.
One view that is not changing is Sue Vaughan’s.
“We recognize the need of the city to prevent sprawl,” Vaughan, the chair of the San Francisco chapter of the Sierra Club, said. “But we support the idea of smart development. You have to balance development with open space.”
On Nov. 3, San Francisco approved Proposition D, which granted approval for the San Francisco Giants to develop Pier 48. The 28-acre waterfront project, also known as the Mission Rock Development, has drawn criticism from the Sierra Club.
The primary concern for Vaughan and the Sierra Club is the walling off of the waterfront properties which would ultimately reduce open space and visual intrigue.
“They want to put a 10-story parking structure right on the waterfront,” Vaughan said. “This is the 21st century. San Francisco cannot be catering to cars while not making open space a priority.”
In the development plan the Giants will be able to exceed the height limitations currently placed on the site: no building greater than one story. This voter-approved zoning exception will allow three mixed-use towers to be raised to 240-feet tall. Furthermore, 10 adjacent acres will be zoned for multi-use development up to 190 feet. This development is expected to create anywhere from 1,000 to 1,950 units of housing and 3,100 new parking spaces for cars.
According to Vaughan, San Francisco leadership fast-tracks development plans without thoroughly looking at environmental or aesthetic consequences of the projects.
“The reason Manhattan is beautiful is because of the skyline,” Vaughan said. “The reason San Francisco is beautiful is because of the bay. We won’t be able to see the bay if we build like Manhattan.”
Jasper Rubin, the Chair of the Urban Studies and Planning Program at San Francisco State University and a former member of the city’s planning department, said the effort to build upwards has been going on for more than 50 years.
“Maybe the first example of Manhattanization in San Francisco would be the construction of the Fontana Towers,” Rubin said. “The neighbors were incensed because it blocked their views of the bay.”
The Fontana Towers, located west of Ghirardelli Square, were built in 1962. They are both 230-feet tall and feature 18 floors of residential space. According to Rubin, this new construction really struck a chord with residents of the time and, perhaps for the first time, differentiated the mentality of residents of San Franciscans and Manhattanites.
“Manhattan was always tall, it was always big, very antithetical to the idea of San Francisco’s connection with nature,” Rubin said. “When you live here, you feel connected to nature because of the hills, or because you have water on three sides.”
According to Rubin, early challenges facing city planners were devising ways to accentuate the natural topography of San Francisco, which is actually adorned with nearly 50 hills that make getting a view of the bay easy.
“Eventually, the planning department realized if we are going to build tall buildings, we need to build them at the top of tall hills,” Rubin said. “When you build on the hill, it maintains the notion that there is a hill there.”
The city adhered to this principle until approval and subsequent completion of the Transamerica Pyramid in 1972. At 853-feet, the Transamerica building is San Francisco’s tallest building. It boasts 48 floors and lies in the northern part of the Financial District.
“That threw a lot of people off,” Rubin said. “This is one of several reasons why San Francisco passed Proposition M in 1985. People saw a lot of tall buildings going up around them.”
Prop M amended the city’s Office Development Annual Limit Program. From that point forward, any office space project greater than 25,000 square-feet required additional square-footage to be reviewed and approved by the planning department.
As a result, the planning department now has the discretion to allocate 950,000 square-feet of additional office space per year, and any unused allocatable square-footage is carried over to subsequent years for disbursement. The planning department could technically allocate two Transamerica buildings worth of office space every year.
It’s really the office buildings that are driving overall growth in San Francisco. Of San Francisco’s 50 tallest buildings, 35 of them are offices, with nothing under 400-feet tall appearing on the list. As the tech economy burgeons, the supporting infrastructure to house the workers will have to grow as well.
“The thing is, it brings more demand for housing,” Rubin said. “They want to live closer to their jobs.”
What’s more, there are currently nine towers under construction, mostly in SoMa, that are greater than 400-feet tall, most notably the Salesforce Tower. Once completed, the Salesforce Tower will be the tallest building in San Francisco, reaching a height of 1070 feet.
On top of that, developers have submitted proposals for 15 more buildings greater than 400-feet in height. The tallest of these buildings would be 905-feet tall and contain one million square-feet of office space as well as 111 residential units.
This development may eventually spread to areas like the Marina, Western Addition and Sunset Districts as the Board of Supervisors debates relaxing height and density restrictions in those neighborhoods with a so-called density bonus program.
“There is no clear statement in any policy document, and there is nothing in the city’s charter that says, ‘OK, we’ve built enough, there’s a limit here,’” Rubin said. “Who knows if it’s good for San Francisco.”
All the while, debate will continue as to what the city is starting to resemble.
“We are always comparing ourselves to a city we don’t want to be,” Rubin said.