San Francisco is at a crossroads. On one side, a skyrocketing real estate market and loads of entrepreneurs eager to take on civic projects. On the other, growing clamor about creeping gentrification and the privatization of transit infrastructure. The changing face of the city will be played out in large-scale projects like the Transbay Transit Center, a 1.5-million-square-foot transit hub designed by the esteemed PoMo architect, Cesar Pelli, and his office, Pelli Clarke Pelli. This spring, a slew of new renderings and videos give us a glimpse of some of the project’s details.
The Transbay renderings are designed to seduce—they show us an oasis of shimmering glass louvers, a 5.4-acre rooftop park, and plentiful cycling and pedestrian passageways. In the words of one academic, it "drips with sex appeal, featuring gorgeous architecture with sinuous curves, enriched paving, lush landscaping, and seductive water displays." Inside, though, the building is a well-engineered machine: three city blocks of bus depots, rail tracks, and other transit infrastructure. The whole development will be grounded by a massive 1,000-foot office tower, which will be the city’s tallest building and fund the construction of the transit hub.
The crowning design element of Transbay, though, is its 5.4-acre roof park designed by Berkeley-based PWP Landscape Architecture. The long plinth of green is organized into three giant sinkhole skylights, which descend to bring natural light all the way to the subterranean level of the hub, where BART trains will stop beginning in 2017. Up top, the developers are planning plenty of city-friendly amenities like an amphitheater, a playground, and cafes. According to the architects, there will be a dozen entry points to the three-story park. The half-circle striations of the landscape design echo another very famous PoMo icon in the city—the San Francisco MoMA, which is getting its own modern addition by Snohetta within a few years.
It looks like a lovely civic space, though recent budget cuts have foisted some pretty significant value engineering changes on the original plan. For example, the undulating glass exterior is being changed to perforated metal. That may be fine, depending on the design details. Still, it’s worth noting how momentous decisions like this can be. The developers have compared Transbay to Grand Central Terminal in New York, or Victoria Station in London. You could also compare it to less grand hubs, like the Port Authority Bus Terminal, a similarly dense block of services packaged in a perforated metal facade. It’s unlikely that Transbay will end up a blight on San Francisco—but it’s worth noting that seemingly small changes can radically alter the quality of space on a project this large.
The change will save the project around $7.5 million according to some estimates, which is still less than the $8 million budget of the Bay Lights. Yet a change like this has the potential to affect the city on a similar scale. It’d be incredible to see the community rally around the issue, but that’s unlikely to happen since, as SFGate notes, the change is also due to safety issues.
Either way, it’ll be fascinating to watch how Transbay takes shape, and how the hub will integrate with the urban fabric of a city that is changing at a remarkable pace. And maybe it’ll lure commuters away from all those pesky private bus services?