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    The San Francisco Transbay Transit Center

    Last week’s Friday the 13th was cause for celebration in San Francisco, as major political dignitaries including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senator Barbara Boxer, Mayor Gavin Newsom, and former Mayor Willie Brown, were joined by hundreds more to celebrate the groundbreaking of San Francisco’s new Transbay Transit Center.

    Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects presented the final design to the Transbay Joint Powers Authority Board (TJPA) in San Francisco, with  a projected cost of $4 billion. The terminal received a $171 million loan earlier this year from the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) to proceed with phase 1 of the project, which includes site preparation and demolition, and will create a new five-story Transit Center with one above-grade bus level, ground-floor, concourse, and two below-grade rail levels serving Caltrain and future California High Speed Rail. Phase I will also create new bus ramps that will connect the Transit Center to a new off-site bus storage facility and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The TJPA is charged with designing, building, operating and maintaining a new intermodal terminal and rail extension, and is collaborating with the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency and City departments to create an adjacent new transit oriented neighborhood.

    This massive urban development and infrastructural project in downtown San Francisco, is to be located south of the financial district at Mission and First Streets on the site of the currently decommissioned Transit Center, which was originally built 1n 1939 along with other California public works projects during the Great Depression era.

    The Transit Center is to be a modern regional transit hub connecting eight Bay Area counties and the State of California through 11 transit systems: AC Transit, BART, Caltrain, Golden Gate Transit, Greyhound, Muni, SamTrans, WestCAT Lynx, Amtrak, Paratransit and future High Speed Rail from San Francisco to Los Angeles/Anaheim. It will be constructed from steel and glass with a curvilinear exterior inspired the by the sway of tree trunks and their shady canopies. As the facade reaches the roof, it curves in, softening the shadow casted on the street below. Judging from the renderings, the serpentine-like waves of exterior glass belie any formal substantiation, since in reality the curving glass, or undulating forms, are devised to conceal colossal seismic-compliant concrete structures and appear irreverent of any site or contextual responses.

    Undulating glass curtain wall system designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects

    However, a number of green building strategies were incorporated into the design aiming for Gold LEED certification, including passive solar shading, high performance glazing, geothermal cooling and even wind power. 

    The heart of the new transit center, besides all the great public transportation integrated into the building, is an expansive 5.4 acre public park on the roof. The architects state that the new open public park will offer “activity as well as quiet relaxation […] the park will be part of the daily experience of people living and working in the neighborhood. 

    Walking paths, playgrounds, cafés, a performance venue, and 12 gardens, each representing a different natural environment, form a full-fledged urban park. In addition, a 1,000-foot-long fountain will have jets of water triggered by the movement of buses below.

    Over time, bridges will be added to connect adjacent buildings to the park, fully integrating it into San Francisco’s urban fabric.”


    One can’t help but evoke the popular reception of other elevated parks, such as New York’s now-famous High Line Park, which has served to catalyze the neighborhoods threaded by this repurposed elevated subway track.

    Totaling 1.5 million square feet of space, the Transit Center will be coupled with a gleaming class-and-steel high-rise tower intended to add new character to the San Francisco skyline joining current San Francisco landmarks like the Transamerica building and the Golden Gate bridge.

    While my architectural sensibilities might lean more toward site-responsive design, I firmly believe in the goals of the Transit Bay and Tower project, namely to:

    • Replace the outdated Transbay Terminal at First and Mission streets
    • Extend Caltrain and California High Speed Rail underground from Caltrain’s current terminus at 4th and King streets into the new downtown Transit Center
    • Create a new neighborhood with homes, offices, parks and shops surrounding the new Transit Center

    These milestones are worthy of any architectural design formality, since they bring into deliberate focus the practical, performative, and transformative aspects of this project. As construction starts on the transit center this August and is expected to be completed in 2017, I anticipate this “Grand Central Station of the West” to catalyze the high-speed rail movement in California, and perhaps broadly across America over the next few decades.


    Originally written by Fernando Arias at FutureTransport US

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