Big changes could be coming to San Francisco's skyline

May 24, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
A skyline is like a city's fingerprint, complex and unique. But unlike a fingerprint, skylines change, and now San Francisco's is about to.

After a four-hour meeting Thursday, planning commissioners approved a series of actions that will shift the city's center to the south, filling in what's now a hole in the skyline with buildings that will dwarf the Transamerica Pyramid.

"Fulfilling a long held vision in the downtown plan in 1985 to realize a new heart for downtown San Francisco," said Joshua Switzky with the San Francisco Planning Department.

In a triangular area between Market and Folsom streets, a new, dense neighborhood of high rises is proposed, centered around the 1,000-foot tall Transit Tower on the site of the old Transbay Terminal, surrounded by parks.

"The amount of open space that I saw there is just breathtaking," said Danny Campbell with the San Francisco Building Trades Council. "It's brilliant."

However, the next big hurdle for the project isn't about what's rising into the air, but what's on the ground. Back in the 1980s, voters approved strict limits on the shadows a tall building can cast on a city park. To see why Proposition K was passed, just visit the Financial District. A sea of tall buildings plunges some streets into near twilight by mid-afternoon.

Nearby, St. Mary's Square is bathed in sunlight thanks to careful planning. But several parks could be overshadowed by the new buildings, and some residents are not happy about it.

"The people of the city have already voted," said anti-development attorney Sue Hester. "You may not amend Prop. K just because of superior design or whatever airy-fairy reasons you have today for this project."

Though they've approved the plan, commissioners have pledged to study the shadows in more detail before they actually issue building permits.

"And not to set a precedent that the shadow ordinance should get chipped away at, a little bit at a time, so that it doesn't really mean anything anymore," said Cindy Wiu, San Francisco planning commissioner.

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