The next ugly high-rise

For starters, we're not at all convinced San Francisco needs another giant office tower

EDITORIAL The San Francisco Planning Department is preparing for a new set of zoning rules that could allow a 1,200-foot high-rise office building — half again the height of the Transamerica Pyramid — near First and Mission Streets. It's part of the devil's bargain for the new Transbay Terminal, and it badly needs to be reined in.

The proposal for gigantic new towers is the city's way to finance reconstruction of the terminal, which ought to be the central link in a regional transportation network that combines buses and high speed rail downtown. It's a worthy project — and an expensive one. Estimates for the new terminal run around $1 billion. And neither the city nor the state have that kind of money right now.

There's a reason for that, of course: Californians have been living for decades in a fantasy world, a place where grand public achievements — like a great park system, a great public university system, new trains and roads — can be built and maintained without anyone having to pay for them. Once upon a time, tax money built this state's preeminent public institutions; now even the mention of higher taxes sends Democrats and Republicans alike scurrying for political cover.

So the only way San Francisco officials can see to pay for the monumental new train and bus station — a facility, we're told, that could rival Grand Central Terminal in New York — is to sell off the skyline. Gerald Hines, a Texas developer, is prepared to pay $350 million for a single plot of land near the terminal — if he can build a massive high-rise there. The same goes for the rest of the public land around the site: the higher the buildings the city will allow, the more cash that comes in for the project. Since this is San Francisco, affordable housing will be part of the payoff.

We support the Transbay Terminal project, and we support more affordable housing — but this isn't a good deal for the city.

For starters, we're not at all convinced San Francisco needs another giant office tower, much less a complex of giant buildings choking a corner of South of Market. Who are we trying to attract to the city? The giant outfits that can pay the high rents to fill these buildings are not doing much for the local economy. In fact, small, locally-owned businesses create most of the new jobs in this city. And while Dean Macris, the former planning director who is still a development advisor to Mayor Gavin Newsom, loves big high spires, a lot of us find them hideous. That ugly tower on Rincon Hill, which has nothing but housing for the very rich, is a blight on the skyline. Why would we want more of the same?

This week's presentation will be the beginning of a long process that needs to end with a rational development plan (a transit village with a heavy mix of affordable housing?) that's driven by the city's needs. And San Francisco officials need to take a hard look at whether auctioning off the skyline is the only way to fund the Transbay Terminal.