Right at the turn of the year, Bay Area residents got a new look at a tower planned near the heart of San Francisco. One Van Ness has been in the works for a while; a prior design for this mid-rise building by Richard Meier & Partners, the firm that designed the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, fell to the wayside when the ownership of the development changed hands. Is that good news or bad?
The new design for One Van Ness, which will rise 37 stories at the intersection of Van Ness Avenue and Market Street, is the work of Snøhetta, the firm that designed the expansion to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (currently under construction). Snøhetta’s chief, Craig Dykers, has become something of a darling in San Francisco, where his firm recently opened an office. With major projects such as SFMOMA and a new stadium for the Golden State Warriors under its belt, Snøhetta is designing the look and feel of the new San Francisco.
That’s a problem for some. Any tower design for San Francisco is bound to touch a sore spot, even a mid-rise. One Van Ness features glass and masonry cladding as well as signature wedge-shaped cutouts: stylistic technical features designed to reduce wind downdrafts, says the San Francisco Chronicle’s John King.
Critics have seized on that wedge.
A journalist and illustrator, Susie Cagle tells me in an email that she covered San Francisco real estate in 2008, and the Snøhetta project reminds her of ambitious residential projects planned for Market Street that never happened. “I think it’s a place where dense construction makes sense,” she says. “But I also think some of these plans look really silly, and I see shades of that earlier bubble mentality, which is troubling to say the least.”
Cagle wasn’t the only Bay Area resident to take to Photoshop to express her feelings about the new tower.
Architectural pedigree cannot spare a design that replaces a beloved landmark from the wrath of its neighbors. A small strip anchored by a shop called All Star Donuts will make way for One Van Ness. “Mostly I’m sad that the donut shop is leaving. I get my tea there every morning before work,” photographer Brian Brophy (@thetens) tells me in an email. “John King should’ve put a trigger warning on there for me.”
If these are the worst objections that Snøhetta and design partners SCB face while they are refining their proposal, they should count themselves lucky.
“As far as new skyscrapers in the city, it’s fine enough. At least it’s white, which looks good in San Francisco, and not another teal monstrosity,” Brophy says. “I’ll never unsee that mouth though.”
“I’m not anti ‘Manhattanization’ in terms of dense growth and tall buildings, but this kind of housing won’t help the city’s affordability crisis,” Cagle says.
King concurs that the design is promising.
“The slinky tower envisioned by Meier had the potential of being a sculptural landmark,” King writes. “The tower being crafted for the new developers by SCB and Snøhetta has the potential of being a low-key but satisfying addition to Civic Center, bottom to top. It will be interesting to see in the coming months if the final plans live up to the initial promise.”
All of this tells me that developers working in contentious real-estate markets would do well to invest in design up front. King explains that the architects eschewed glass and steel for a design that would reflect the “masonry tradition” of the Civic Center. Even the people who sound suspicious of new development in San Francisco and its effect on the Bay Area will reluctantly admit that the Snøhetta–SCB tower has merit.
Whether the tower gets built to this design is an open question going forward: It could very well be scaled back by budget demands. And whether the Talking Tower’s critics stay on the sidelines is another.
“Really, though, I just like making fun of renderings,” Cagle says.