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Transbay San Francisco real estate The Registry

New transit hub is also a catalyst for a neighborhood redesign.


By David Goll

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hat could become “one of the great urban neighborhoods in America” is starting to take shape on the southern edge of downtown San Francisco.

Mike Grisso

More than a quarter-century in the making through a combination of public and private financing, the city’s Transbay Redevelopment Plan will transform the nearly 40 acres in San Francisco’s SoMA district south of Mission Street by bringing more than 4,400 housing units, 11 acres of new public parks and nearly 1,000 hotel rooms—along with 100,000 square feet of retail and six million square feet of office space. The crown jewel of the redeveloped area, the 1,070-foot Transbay Tower, should open by 2018. The city’s tallest building, it will sit adjacent to the redeveloped Transbay Transit Center for a combined cost of $4.5 billion. The latter has been designed as a regional transportation hub already dubbed the “Grand Central Station of the West.”

“[Transbay] gives us the unique opportunity to create one of the great urban neighborhoods in America,” said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of SPUR, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that advises government officials on planning and development issues. Metcalf said SPUR got involved in early discussions in the 1980s about redeveloping the 1939 vintage Transbay Terminal, the city’s original transit hub on Howard Street, and its surrounding neighborhood.

Initially, the plan aimed to channel downtown growth southward from San Francisco’s financial district. Metcalf said residents and city officials wanted the city’s biggest high-rises to go into one area instead of spreading into densely built but historical neighborhoods and tourist destinations such as Chinatown. Redevelopment of the South-of-Market area grew to encompass replacement of the aging Transbay Terminal to accommodate the region’s growing public transit web—including BART, Caltrain, Muni, AC Transit, SamTrans and, some day, possibly the state’s high-speed rail trains.

[quote]”When completed, it will be the densest neighborhood in San Francisco, but also the most livable.” Mike Grisso, San Francisco’s Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure[/quote]

But the project also has become a way to make downtown more of a place to live and play, as well as work. A mix of rental apartments and for-sale condos and townhouses will bring up to 10,000 new residents to the downtown core, according to Mike Grisso, senior project manager for San Francisco’s Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure, successor to the city’s defunct Redevelopment Agency. Grisso has worked on the Transbay project for 11 years.

“In creating a plan for this neighborhood, we focused on livability, creating parks and open spaces, retail on Folsom Street and ground-level townhouses in places,” Grisso said. State officials have mandated that 35 percent of all the project housing must be affordable. Some projects, like the Rene Cazenave Apartments, are 100 percent affordable, while other housing projects are fully market-rate developments.

In San Francisco, housing is considered “affordable” when low- and middle-income residents are paying no more than 30 percent of their income for rent. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development pegs San Francisco’s area median annual income for 2014 at $62,050 for one person to $88,600 for a family of four. For most of the affordable housing units, tenants would pay monthly rent of $850 for a studio to $1,214 per month for three bedrooms.

“When completed, it will be the densest neighborhood in San Francisco, but also the most livable. It’s close to amenities, jobs and transit,” Grisso said.

Folsom Street offers one of the strongest examples of the redeveloped neighborhood’s appeal, according to Grisso. He said it will be transformed from a busy one-way street with narrow pedestrian walkways into a two-way “boulevard” with 25-foot-wide sidewalks lined with outdoor cafes and restaurants, as well as service-oriented retailers in spaces no larger than 5,000 square feet. Mid-block walkways across Folsom would give greater priority to pedestrians in a city not often hospitable—or even safe—for walkers. New landscaping, lighting, seating, bike lanes and other amenities will make Folsom and neighboring thoroughfares more inviting for both residents and office workers, he added.

High-rise buildings will mix with low-rise formats, with ground-level townhouses on some blocks adding a residential, round-the-clock population ambiance to the district. Redeveloped Folsom Boulevard, running through the heart of the new residential area, is expected to be a gathering spot for both the new Transbay and nearby existing Rincon Hill housing areas.

The plan calls for Main, Spear and Beale streets to be redesigned as pedestrian-oriented corridors linking residential blocks and the new office development and Financial District. Sidewalks would be widened and lined with trees, seating areas and small open spaces.

“Today, San Francisco has some very rough streets,” Grisso said. “Cities like Chicago and Vancouver have done a much better job of creating nice sidewalks and public spaces. We have to pay more attention to the public realm to make for an inviting pedestrian environment. Because most people will arrive in this part of the city through the Transbay transit center, they will all start out as pedestrians. We want to make sure as many as possible remain pedestrians during their time in this neighborhood.”

Office building development, generating up to 27,000 jobs, will cluster in the northern portion of the redevelopment area closest to the Financial District. Much of the southern portion of the district, centering on Folsom, focuses on residential and retail projects.

Beyond promoting ground-level townhouse-style housing and mandating strict controls on the slenderness of office towers to permit greater visibilities and sunlight, city officials are allowing wide design latitude to developers, Grisso said. They are hoping to generate an eclectic yet complementary look to the neighborhood.

Streetscape construction along Folsom should start early next year and be completed by early 2016, Grisso said. Improvements along other nearby streets start along with private construction of each block. The creation of open space under the new bus ramps of the Transbay transit center should be open by 2018.

James Chung, managing director and principal of Terranomics Retail Services, concurs with Grisso that most of new retail attracted to the redeveloped Transbay district will be restaurants and services such as bakeries, coffee shops, boutiques, dry cleaners, bookstores and similar tenants. Adding a larger residential component will help attract small retailers, but success is not a slam dunk, he said. Just a few blocks away, the King Street commercial thoroughfare in the 303-acre Mission Bay redevelopment area has had mixed success attracting retailers.

“King Street has not done exceptionally well, though it is getting better,” Chung said. Retail and housing redevelopment along that corridor began with the opening of AT&T Park in 2000 and phased development of the massive new Mission Bay residential, office, life science/biotech space in the ensuing decade.

“There’s lots of activity in that area, with the ballpark, employers, restaurants, a Safeway and the Lucky Strike bowling alley,” Chung said. “But it’s just not quite there yet.”

Chung said asking monthly retail rates along King Street are in the range of $4 to $5 per square foot. Several blocks away in the upscale Union Square shopping district anchored by Macy’s, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, asking monthly rental rates can be as high as $42 per square foot per month.

The retail picture on both King Street and the future Folsom Boulevard should benefit from the influx of new residents to the Transbay neighborhood. Grisso said the various types of housing will create a diversified residential district. Families likely will make up the bulk of those moving into the affordable rental units, while the market-rate housing will most likely appeal to more affluent young professionals and empty-nesters from the suburbs, he said.

One of the first residential developments to be completed is already ensuring that the neighborhood won’t be exclusively upscale. The Rene Cazenave Apartments are geared to people who were formerly homeless. Named in honor of a late community activist and founding member of San Francisco’s Community Housing Partnership, the eight-story structure at 530 Folsom St. has 120 studio and one-bedroom units, 12 of which are handicapped accessible. Residents, referred by the city’s Department of Public Health, are also eligible to receive counseling and medical services, Grisso said.

Photography by Laura Kudritzki

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