Jeffrey Heller looked over a detailed scale model of San Francisco of the near future and pointed to the downtown area.
“There’s very little left in this part of the city,” the president of Heller Manus Architects said at the firm’s headquarters inside the Transamerica Pyramid. “We’re out of land. Everything is spoken for. We’re getting into an era in downtown where there are no more defined spaces.”[contextly_sidebar id=”3NkHZOefQ3GDH20TyNG9j5sXrnSoygRk”]But the model displayed in the firm’s reception area reveals an answer to that problem: taller buildings than ever before, including two projects designed by Heller Manus in the transformative Transbay District—the proposed Oceanwide Center at First and Mission streets and the under-construction tower at 181 Fremont.
New skyscrapers in various stages of the development pipeline—not to mention the Salesforce Tower under way as well just across from the Oceanwide site—are quickly reshaping the city’s skyline, driven in large part by a continuing strong trend toward urbanism.
“The urbanization of the planet is the future because of population growth,” Heller said. “Doing tall buildings is an important part of that.”
John Barton, director of architectural design at Stanford University, expressed a similar sentiment. “The question is not so much what the skyline will look like,” Barton said. “The talk is about how buildings will go denser and taller because land is more expensive and people want to go back to the city. They see a level of services there: They’re able to go shopping, and they like walking.”
Companies are following that urban movement, Barton said, and in pursuing commercial development, some of them are going for an iconic design.
“Some corporations are building their own structures rather than relying solely on developers,” he added. “It speaks to their desire to invest and wanting to control what their environments look like. You see that with” such projects as Apple’s saucer-like new headquarters being built in Cupertino.
That’s also certainly the case with the Oceanwide project. Beijing-based Oceanwide Holdings Co. bought the site for nearly $300 million to build what would be San Francisco’s second-tallest building. A gleaming Salesforce Tower is slated to be the tallest at 1,070 feet when completed in 2017.
In a presentation to the city in January the Oceanwide project’s architectural team, led by London-based Foster + Partners in collaboration with Heller Manus, detailed a development featuring an eye-catching, crystalline-like tower rising 910 feet up from the First Street side while a second tower fronting Mission and having a more traditional design would reach 625 feet high.
In all, the development would provide about 2 million square feet of new space and could cost as much as $1.6 billion. It could break ground late this year.
The glazed, diamond-latticed design of the 910-foot tower—which would have more than 1 million square feet of office space and 109 residential units—is forward-looking because it speaks to San Francisco as a truly international city “attracting global investors,” Heller said.
The other high rise, which would have 156 residential units above a 169-room hotel, looks more conventional with the familiar rectangular shape and masonry of skyscrapers of the recent past. This appearance is in context with the existing buildings and urban character on Mission, Heller said.
Another key design concept of the Oceanwide complex incorporates about a half-acre of open public space at and around the base of the buildings, including trees, pocket parks along alleyways and other landscaping. Much of that open space would be created by having the body of the taller tower begin 70 feet above ground floor.
Providing open space is part of city requirements, Heller said, “and we’ve embraced that.”
The project’s design also calls for large office floor plates, which give tenants an open layout and flexibility in arranging their work environment.
Heller describes the 800-foot 181 Fremont, which will offer office space and housing, as having a global design as well. It will be another glassy tower in the city skyline, held by a diagonal exoskeletal frame similar to that envisioned for the Oceanwide project.
“The dazzling sawtooth curtain wall both animates the building’s faces and reduces its solar load,” the Web page for 181 Fremont proclaims. “Even the exterior wrap-around terrace serves both as a visual delineation of the commercial and residential floors while being an integral part of the structural system by reducing wind loads on the building and at the sidewalk.”
Both the Oceanwide project and 181 Fremont “do look to the future,” Heller said. “These buildings will influence other buildings” in San Francisco and across the country.
Barton expects construction of such towers to only continue. Future skyscrapers will feature a “sophisticated connection to the public realm” in terms of such elements as open spaces and retail offerings, he said. That’s because employees are looking for that connection and cities are mandating it.
He also noted that glass is all the rage today as mortar was in the past. As the production of high-performance building skins becomes increasingly efficient, he said, “It’ll be easier to do glass, so you may see more of this.”