San Francisco’s New Urban Persona, A Tale of Two Cities

The striking new Transbay Tower

The striking new Transbay Tower

Even for San Francisco, a city known to be eccentric, progressive, and a bit avant-garde a dramatic change is taking place. The natural beauty, stately-mansions, classic-eateries, and art-scene all firmly remain a part of San Francisco’s core but there is an explosion of high-rise development South of Market Street that will transform the very character of the city.

For more than a century, high-rise construction in San Francisco was limited almost exclusively to the financial district, a 1/2 square mile area that was San Francisco’s original wharf and commercial district. Even within this area, high-rise building constraints were many and up until 1970 there were only 6 high-rises over 400 feet (this article only refers to buildings taller than 400 feet.)

Development in San Francisco stepped up in the 70s and 80s and an additional 15 high-rises were built in the financial district; including San Francisco’s highest, the Transamerican Pyramid at over 850 feet. Market Street and the area South of Market Street (SOMA) saw a blush of  high-rise development in the 70s and 80s and in that 20 year period 14 high-rises were constructed there. From 2002 to 2013, 7 high-rises were added in San Francisco, all South of Market.

What is the explosion? Strictly speaking prior to this year, 2014, SOMA had a total of 13 high-rise buildings. Right now there are an additional 16 high-rise buildings under construction or in various stages of development in SOMA, and these only represent buildings 400 feet in height and over; there are numerous high-rise buildings short of 400 feet in construction or planned. Two of the high-rises will exceed the height of San Francisco current tallest building, the Transamerica Pyramid at 853 feet. One, the Transbay Tower will top out at 61 stories and nearly 1100 feet.

In a span of a few short years development activity will double the number of high-rises in SOMA and increase the number of high-rises citywide by an amazing 40%.

San Francisco is a city of many distinct neighborhoods but from this article’s perspective we have a tale of two cities; The North Side: provincial, refined, elegant; The South Side: more and more urban, vibrant, hip.

Certainly the lifestyle choices of these two areas are different; in the North a slower pace – taking time to savor, in the South a new found pursuit of urban experience and a desire to be in the middle of it. How will San Francisco adapt to and incorporate this fundamentally different persona?

Change and diversity is nothing new to San Francisco, from a multitude of world cultures, beat-poets, flower children, and gays to banks, silicon-valley pioneers and venture capitalists. Coexistence and tolerance are the city’s hallmarks and in spite of its eccentricities the city has a rich, varied and compelling culture.

Woven amidst their differences are the things San Franciscan’s love about their city that give them vast common ground. Among these are the city’s natural beauty; great venues for art, entertainment and sports; some of the world’s best food and wine; vibrant commercial, creative and intellectual energy; and a dedication to enjoying life to the fullest.

Knowing San Francisco, it will welcome the urbanization in SOMA as a new part of its psyche, embrace its best qualities and continue its evolution as one of the world’s finest and biggest little cities.

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