November 20, 2013

San Francisco's Transbay Block 8 And 550-Foot Tower Back In Play

Transbay Block 8 Massing (steelblue and NEORAMA via SocketSite.com)

Suspended back in 2009 when bids for the property came in "well below the potential value of the site in a healthier real estate market," San Francisco's Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure has just issued a new request for proposals to purchase and develop Transbay Block 8, the one-acre parcel fronting Folsom Street between First and Fremont.

Transbay Block 8 (First and Folsom)

Zoned for a 550-foot tower to rise on the site, the City is seeking proposals for "a high-density, residential project with approximately 740 units, 27 percent of which must be affordable to qualifying households, and ground-floor retail in multiple building types, including a 550-foot tower, townhouses, and podium buildings" as rendered in red above.

The Request For Proposals to develop Transbay Block 8 back in 2008 had targeted the development of 597 housing units on the site, nearly 20 percent fewer than is now being sought.

First Published: November 20, 2013 1:30 PM

Comments from "Plugged In" Readers

Like the increase in units, but don't understand the stubby height. Why not go for 700-800'? If there's a place for height, this is it.

Posted by: anon at November 20, 2013 1:55 PM

Stubby? OMG, when will the desire for higher and higher with EVERY new project ever end?

What are your reasons? Is there no concern for a "variety" of high limits?

We're not Chicago and we're not NY?

Must be emulate them?

Posted by: Futurist at November 20, 2013 1:58 PM

Futurist, I think I speak for many when I ask that you go sit in your quiet chair for a few minutes until you are ready to have a normal conversation.

Posted by: pablo at November 20, 2013 2:06 PM

I don't get the height fetish either. Maybe we should just build another Burj Khalifa to get people to simmer down.

Posted by: anon at November 20, 2013 2:08 PM

I just sort of assume that any post about a new project will include (1) first, a complaint that it's not tall or dense enough, and then (2) a complaint about the complaint.

Then I look for the interesting posts that follow.

What I thought when I saw the rendering of SOMA after this gets built is that "SOMA is starting to look like Vancouver, with its thin and tall residential towers. A good thing.

Posted by: Mickey at November 20, 2013 2:13 PM

@Pablo: exactly, except I'd recommend a few days in his quiet chair.

However, Futurist hit on a very important point...we are neither Chicago nor NYC and this distinction is best represented in our crappy public transit system. I'd also like to know his reasons for not having more height rather than simply bashing others' "armchair" opinions.

Posted by: Mark at November 20, 2013 2:15 PM

The other aspect that's important to look at from an architectural and urban design point of view, is that variety in height, density, materials and use:

creates a more dynamic skyline and, I believe, a move livable city. Sure, it's very subjective as to what "tall" really is. In Dubai, 550' may not be very tall. Here, it is quite tall. Height is also related to the economic ROI on a building.

The higher you go, the construction costs can go up tremendously. Structural systems can become more complex. Vertical transportation and exiting becomes more complex.

From what we can see in the photo above, the red building is, in fact, the tallest element in that immediate block, and I believe, quite appropriate.

Posted by: Futurist at November 20, 2013 2:16 PM

This is 2013 and who knows what our needs will be in 2023, 2033. We have to try and build as high as economically possible so that we do not run out of room in the future. But every developer has its own agenda.

I can see 2 active construction sites from my window and I like it a lot. It's the sign of a healthy prosperous future-looking city. I am quickly losing light and view at my current 250 feet...

I think that SF would be better off with less height restrictions. Say a Haussmann rule that would allow every building in residential areas the City to be built up to 6 or 7 floors. But SF was born first as an outpost, then a provincial metropolis where the "suburbs" started from within the 7X7. Today it's wealthy and in love with its old world charm.

But we ARE brushing off the provincial image one tech giant at a time. We're a Global City, and 800K dwellers doesn't cut it for this type of ambition. We should go for 1M and more, so that our political power can match the current economical one. Just look at how hard it is to get a HSR line in there. With a higher population this would be a no-brainer.

Posted by: lol at November 20, 2013 2:28 PM

Please stop teasing us with that old Transbay Tower rendering... it looks so much more elegant at that height.

Posted by: sf at November 20, 2013 2:29 PM

Is there no concern for a "variety" of high limits?

There is a concern for a variety of building heights, sure. That's why I wrote: "If there's a place for height, this is it."

But height limits? No, don't see any need for those. Give architects the freedom to be creative, I say. But, as I said, if we're going to have height limits, this is the obvious place for very tall limits. Especially since we have such a table-top skyline of 550-600' within most of the FiDi.

Posted by: anon at November 20, 2013 2:31 PM

We need height limits. We need zoning. We need a planning code. All are designed to help shape a city in the ways that best work for ALL the residents and occupants of the city.

But the "freedom to be creative" for architects has little if anything to do with height limits, short, tall or supertall. No connection.

Being creative is about talent, not about allowing for taller structures.

Just go look at Dubai or the major cities of China, where tall and supertalls are among the most wonky and weirdly cartoonish building on the planet. They make Las Vegas look like a quaint town.

Posted by: Futurist at November 20, 2013 2:46 PM

Yeah what is with this board...every project shown is followed by the refrain, "I want higher". This is not Chicago or NYC, this city has never held very tall buildings well. Are streets are no where as wide as Chi or NY, which is needed to set off very tall structures. We end up with stupid canyon effects. Is this forum completely filled with developers or what?

Posted by: height fetish at November 20, 2013 2:51 PM

futurist,

Yes these cities are a bit cartoonish. Is that a bad thing? For instance, what do you think of the Space Needle? It does define Seattle's landscape, just like the Gateway Arch or the LAX Theme building. All can also qualify as "cartoonish".

Posted by: lol at November 20, 2013 3:09 PM

Yes, cartoonish is a bad thing. You asked me.

The Space Needle is "iconic" not cartoonish.

The Gateway arch and the LAX future theme building are considered also iconic, not cartoonish.

Please, look again at most of the buildings in Dubai. See what cartoonish really is. And it's dumb, and we don't need it.

Our own Pyramid is not cartoonish. It's iconic.

Posted by: Futurist at November 20, 2013 3:14 PM

The Space Needle is straight out of the Jetson's.

Of course, everything more than 30 years old will qualify as "iconic" once it's in the landscape.

Posted by: lol at November 20, 2013 3:45 PM

@height fetish - the streets in Soma are a lot wider than the cross-streets in Manhattan (which tend to be 1 or 2 lanes plus parking), and our E-W arterials (Mission, Folsom, etc.) are as wider or wider than some of the N-S avenues in NYC.

I want "higher" for the reasons noted by lol - we have the economic need and wherewithall now, so lets get it done while we can. Inevitably the pendulum will swing back (either economically, or in terms of NIMBY-ish planning constraints) and it'll be another 2 or 3 decades before we can start another wave of construction. So while we've got the wind at our backs, let's keep our foot off the brake!

Posted by: Sierrajeff at November 20, 2013 3:46 PM

Sierrajeff,

I don't think it's 2 or 3 decades. More like 10 years or so. After all ORH, the Infinity, Millenium, St regis, 555 Mission all date from less than 10 years ago.

Posted by: lol at November 20, 2013 3:50 PM

Gee I hope they make it taller

But not that bright red

It's kinda gaudy....

Posted by: mdg at November 20, 2013 4:10 PM

@Futurist, you said:

Being creative is about talent, not about allowing for taller structures.

How about:

Being creative is about talent, not about allowing for wooden structures.

Being creative is about talent, not about allowing for white structures.

Being creative is about talent, not about allowing for glass-covered structures.

Of course it's true that creativity doesn't "need" ALL available structure types, but you simply cannot argue that creativity is ENHANCED by limiting one dimension.

I don't have much of an issue with this building necessarily needing to be taller. If it had no height limit and an architect/developer decided that the site or the budget could only handle a 550' building, that would be fine. However, simply imposing a height of 550' for no apparent reason other than "height limits be needed, yo" makes no sense to me. Is there a reason that a limit is needed here? Why is it 550' instead of 600' or 450'? There appears to be no gigantic benefit one way or the other, so why restrict it?

Posted by: anon at November 20, 2013 4:24 PM

I can, in fact, argue it. And I just did.

Your ideas are interesting, but I'm not following the "allowing" for other structures.

Now I don't know exactly why the height at this particular block is 550' and not 600'. But it seems to matter to you. By and large, I support the Planning Code, and that's where this height limit is defined.

Height limits and other zoning issues are put in place for very good reasons: sound urban design goals, livability, and long term planning for a city. NYC even has height limits. But, in all honesty, some neighborhoods and streets are negatively enhanced by VERY tall buildings, creating shadows and wind tunnels. There ARE benefits for height limits and controls.

But I still do not agree with your belief that taller simply means for creativity for architects. You offer NO tangible benefits for going taller, except your belief that taller means "better" architecture.

Not at all.

Our current height limits are appropriate for OUR city, and I hope they remain so.

Posted by: Futurist at November 20, 2013 4:37 PM

You didn't read what I wrote obviously. I never said that taller means more creativity for architects. You said that removing one dimension has no effect on options for architects, which just seems absurd.

Taller may not make anything better, but the lack of an option is the lack of an option. Period. So we'll never know if something taller could be better, because we've legislated it out of existence for no particular reason.

Posted by: anon at November 20, 2013 4:42 PM

Ok, well. good luck.

Move on.

Posted by: Futurist at November 20, 2013 4:48 PM

Just give choice a try, man.

You like choice for parking, why not heights?

Posted by: anon at November 20, 2013 4:49 PM

NYC's height limits has to be put within the context of air rights. I think all of SF should be zoned for 100' and individual homeowners would be allowed to sell the volume of non-built property over their heads to the SOMA/FiDi developers. Ka-ching!!!

j/k

Posted by: lol at November 20, 2013 4:51 PM

Ok, anon, I'll bite. But, OMG you really have no idea what you're talking about. Choice? Really?

I get that you don't support our current planning code. A lot of SF residents don't. I do support it, with very few exceptions.

But long term planning for our city, with regards to new buildings and development is never about "choice". If we had no planning controls, then developer/owners would have a choice to do no setbacks, build as high as they want, delete all off street parking, eliminate open space, rear and side yards, and on and on. And they would exercise those "choices". Result: a terrible place to live.

This is called UNREGULATED growth. Go see a 3rd world country to get a good idea of this process.

Go read the Mission, Vision and Values of the SF Planning Code. The goals are good, humane and largely keep our city a very livable place.

Posted by: Futurist at November 20, 2013 5:06 PM

Futurist makes a good point - planning IS important. For example, unrelated to height limits is the subject of tower width and tower spacing. Cities like Vancouver follow a trend of small floorplates ("skinny" towers) spaced out well leading to more light and privacy for dwellers. Water views are available for 2nd or 3rd row properties too, not just waterfront properties.

You can easily combine this policy with unlimited height to achieve both a high quality of living and maximize density to what the economics allow.

Vancouver does have downtown height limits, but for a very specific reason - to not block mountain views of South Vancouver residents and a specific set of parks (they have view cones). Since downtown SF is already blocking any views that could have been there, there is no point in having a limit. In fact, a couple of 1000-2000-foot towers in SOMA which somebody like Google could be interested in leasing space in would make the view for some SF hill dwellers so much more impressive.

People often bring up the blocking sunlight argument, but the benefit from that is often negligible and in my opinion should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis as opposed to applied as a rule.

Posted by: Anton at November 20, 2013 5:31 PM

I don't find the red color gaudy. I kind of like it. In fact I think they should have a series of these buildings each in a color from the gay rainbow flag. Sure, it would be cartoonish, but in twenty years it would iconic.

Posted by: Rillion at November 20, 2013 5:33 PM

I agree with futurist and Anton and think the Vancouver model is more appropriate to San Francisco than Chicago or New York. Vancouver's skyline somehow feels right for not trying to compete with the stunning bay and mountain views of that city. The San Francisco Bay Area is a unique and desirable landscape and we are not some desert wasteland in need of a Burj Dubai super-tower to put us on the map.

Posted by: NoDubaiHere at November 20, 2013 5:44 PM

Normally I align closer to "build it taller!" than "keep it as it is", but at some point the desperate push for more height becomes silly.

Look at the photo above. SF has the potential to add 5 (!!!) 700+ footers, with TBT, 181 Fremont, the First Street (former SOM design), the Golden Gate University lot, and the Howard Street zone. There are several 300-400 footers popping up or proposed in Mid-Market. Rincon Hill/Transbay is adding several new towers (many seen above), there is the Museum Tower (if it ever happens), and new proposed cultural structures like the Warriors Arena (which WILL get built, NIMBY's be damned), MOMA Expansion, George Lucas museum, etc. In short, San Francisco is not even coming close to slouching when it comes to bringing this city into an era reflective of its status as an Alpha World City.

And yet, even with all this development, you can still hop over to North Beach, Castro, Marina, etc and find the classic, architecturally distinct human scale neighborhoods that made SF famous in the first place.

I support growth. 100%. However, we are not NYC. Dubai. Chicago. Hong Kong. The amount of skyscrapers, and the quality of their design, is perfect for SF. The skyline will look gorgeous once filled out.

Posted by: JWS at November 20, 2013 6:01 PM

Thanks JWS and thanks NoDubaihere. Good comments.

For those who continue to rally for tall and taller, just go take a look at the Vancouver skyline. And that city is perhaps one of the most livable, large cities in North America. We can learn from Vancouver.

Most of the towers are in the 30-40 story range, consistently across their downtown skyline. It works well. It's not boring. It's livable. It's appropriate.

I have still not heard one logical comment as to why we need to keep pushing for taller. Not one.

Posted by: Futurist at November 20, 2013 6:10 PM

Lol - yes, but I'd classify those as the part of the same growth wave we're experiencing now, which merely experienced a brief stall 2006-2009. Before this post-2000 wave of construction, the prior wave of construction was in the 1980s - and lead to much of the building constraints we have today (a cap on adding office floor area, which we risk butting up against; height limits; shadow restrictions; etc.) Between that boom of the 1980s and the 2000s, there was not a lot of downtown building - the current Mandarin Hotel being one of the notable exceptions.

Posted by: Sierrajeff at November 20, 2013 6:18 PM

Futurist, the reason we're (thankfully) not one of those new cities in Dubai or China is our existing street grid. They can build any goofy thing they want because they're inventing cities out of nothing (yes, I'm simplifying), so there's nothing to bulldoze. We are like Manhattan, where new buildings must be fit in the grid.

As for "I have still not heard one logical comment as to why we need to keep pushing for taller", you've heard plenty. (Economics, environmental, future growth, etc.) You just don't agree with them. It's one thing to disagree, it's another to pretend the other side isn't being logical.

Posted by: SFRealist at November 20, 2013 6:23 PM

This is called UNREGULATED growth. Go see a 3rd world country to get a good idea of this process.

Um, or I could just look at you know, San Francisco. Since the vast majority of SF was built before the planning state was put into full effect.

North Beach? The horrors of unregulated growth!

Noe Valley? OMG, how did we let this unregulated growth happen?!?

Pacific Heights? Unregulated growth run amok, yet again!

Western Addition? Yeah, now we're talking. Nice and regulated slum removal.

Golden Gateway complex? Gorgeous, extra awesome urban design. Never see something as perfect as this without regulation.

Park Merced/Stonestown? My god, how did we ever deal with unregulated growth? We were missing out on creating all of SF in such a perfect manner as this!

Unregulated growth? Pretty much all great cities of the world.

Regulated growth? Brasilia.

I'll grant you that Haussmann did a pretty decent job with Paris, but that's a bit different than regulation by committee.

Posted by: anon at November 20, 2013 6:51 PM

And to be clear one more time - I'm not "rallying for taller". I'm questioning why we have height limits at all in this location. If we remove the limit and someone wants to build something the same height, more power to them.

I don't support weed being illegal either, but that doesn't mean that I'm "rallying for weed". I just fail to see a compelling reason to make a 551' tower illegal in this location, while a 550' is peachy keen.

Posted by: anon at November 20, 2013 6:57 PM

The other side of the debate isn't being logical.

They like taller. Why? I have no idea. Ego? Trying to compete with NYC or Chicago or Dubai?
Trying to snub that current Planning Code? Hate regulations on principle?

Who knows?

And really anon. You ARE rallying for taller. Be honest. It's ok to just say it. You are probably THE main proponent on SS for desiring every project posted here to "go taller". Every single one. You have not offered up one single reason why the height of this particular tower should be increased. Except that you don't like the "stubby height".

My official stance: I support the current Planning code as it stands. I support the current height limits.

They work. They are appropriate.

Posted by: Futurist at November 20, 2013 7:10 PM

No comments on the "regulated" neighborhoods of SF versus the ones that developed organically? Typical.

That's why I want fewer regulations. What makes SF great all developed organically, without a group of bureaucrats dictating exactly how things should be.

Posted by: anon at November 20, 2013 7:25 PM

Futurist, if you've forgot, three of the (many) reasons to build taller in this location are: more tax revenue for the city, lower environmental impact of dense development, increased office/residential space in a small city.

None of these reasons include "I like tall buildings"

Posted by: SFRealist at November 20, 2013 7:37 PM

550 is very tall, I would have almost guessed the height might have been closer to 350, but 550 is inline with some of the taller buildings going into the SOMA.

But 740 units are a great addition to San Francisco and very much needed to help control housing costs.
With all of the housing being built in a 2 block radius there will be a need for a new Food Market.

My WISH , Safeway launches a small format store focused on Fresh Produce, Meats, Fish, a Pharmacy, and a wide range of other goods BUT in limited brands and sizes.

Posted by: Joseph A at November 20, 2013 7:43 PM

Futurist - we agree that there are certain aspects of urban design that make a city more liveable. I have spent a significant amount of time in Vancouver, one of the world's most liveable cities and also visited Chicago where I stayed in their SOMA.

In Vancouver I dealt with mostly 30 floor buildings in downtown. In Chicago I stayed in a vintage 56-floor building and could see the 82 floor Aqua condo building. Did it feel any less liveable than Vancouver? Not at all! It was just as awesome.

So my point is, yes, certain regulations are required to make a city liveable, but building height is NOT one of them. You really have to travel to see this for yourself.

And in Vancouver, again, height is not seen as a detriment to liveability - not at all, it's only that in some places it's blocking views.

Now, in places where no views are blocked Vancouver is building 600-foot residential towers. And still is one of the most liveable cities in the world.

Posted by: Anton at November 20, 2013 7:49 PM

@ Anton:

Once again, we are NOT Chicago. Are we trying to be? Is that what you want us to be? But building height, is, in fact, ONE of the reasons to moderate and define appropriate height limits.

And yes, been to Vancouver many times, also Chicago a lot, Toronto, Sydney, NY, etc. So, I do get out now and then.:)

@ Joseph A: I think a new food market will be very much needed in that area soon. I would prefer to see a large Whole Foods down there. And yes, I agree, 550' is very tall.

@

Posted by: Futurist at November 20, 2013 8:04 PM

Futurist, I didn't say anything like we should be trying to be Chicago.

I am saying that I saw no noticeable difference in livability between Chicago and Vancouver.

Please explain to me, how exactly does building height affect livability and why is 400 feet the magical number? (Note that in Vancouver, 400 feet was calculated to ensure the mountain tops of the Coastal range stick above the towers when viewed from certain parks, it's not a random number for Vancouver).

Posted by: Anton at November 20, 2013 8:08 PM

Gave my reasons at 4:37pm.

The term "livability" is highly subjective, I understand that.

Over and over again, I have simply stated that I support the current planning code height regulations for this project at this location.

Enough said.

Posted by: Futurist at November 20, 2013 8:14 PM

Well, I'm also on the "build it taller" brigade, but I just moved here so I'm keeping quiet, and still thinking of a handle to use.

I've seen both the benefits and consequences of "no planning / no zoning" up close as I've spent most of my life in Houston. A brutally ugly place, to be sure, but one that is responding very quickly to market demand for increased density inside the loop (at relatively affordable prices).

Posted by: outtahere at November 20, 2013 8:19 PM

Thanks for pointing it out. So so you said:

"some neighborhoods and streets are negatively enhanced by VERY tall buildings, creating shadows and wind tunnels."

In my opinion this is mitigated by tower spacing and floorplate size.

- First, on the inside of a tower cluster you are going to get a tunnel anyways and spacing can make it more appealing, height has no impact.

- Second, as for shadows, I am sure there is a way to calculate the amount of luminosity that you'd get given a configuration of spacing-width-height, but our planners surely don't actually calculate this and my particular point is that height has the least effect on available light. It sure does have an effect, but not at the ranges of what the market would likely bear.

What I expect to happen if no height limit exists is a maximum of 3x 1000-foot+ towers, and otherwise mostly 400-800 foot towers. Not much different from today, doubtful that it'll be better architecture, but I expect about 20% higher density overall.

By and large I like what the city has planned, don't get me wrong, but I am saying that if the height limit wasn't there we'd still get all the benefits.

Posted by: Anton at November 20, 2013 8:24 PM

Well, I certainly hope I never see, as long as I'm living in SF, three 1000' towers. Never.

Even 800' is out of scale. thankfully, there are few areas zoned for that now. Let's keep it that way. It works well.

But seriously, the seemingly constant push for taller has be baffled. No solid reasons have come up yet as to why. If it's a pure personal opinion, then ok.

But trying to advocate taller, 'cause you like taller is irrational and without merit, and without the support of most residents here AND our current Planning and zoning codes.

If 550' is not tall enough, then it seems like someone is smoking what the Toronto mayor smoked.

Posted by: Futurist at November 20, 2013 8:42 PM

@outtahere, I am hoping you post more regarding Houston as it is amazing how fast the population of that city has grown in the last 10 to 15 years. I am a big reader of the "Antiplanner" website and they show that despite our belief here in the Bay Area that people want to live car free lives in neighborhoods of super high towers with no parking, Texas city growth shows many Americans still want a car and housing with low density. (I live in a high-rise residential tower myself for the record and prefer walkable neighborhoods). In the last 10 years, Houston grew in population by more people than the entire population of San Francisco.

Posted by: anonandon at November 20, 2013 8:53 PM

Futurist, a number of people pointed out the benefits of taller, so I decided not to repeat them. Since you ask, here are some:

* economics
- we have an under-supply of housing especially in this area driving prices and rents up everywhere. a higher supply will mean prices/rents will go up slower in this area.
- it also means other areas will feel less pressure and less people will be displaced by sheer lack of supply
- additionally, fewer developments can occur overall, leaving some old and cheap buildings untouched which provide an essential middle income class housing component which is shrinking today (mostly what is remaining is high or low income class)

* environmental
- less land is taken away from agricultural uses or is left for wilderness
- the higher the density, the higher the justification for mass transit, and incidentally, the higher the tax base. want more reliable muni? you need the demand and its tax base first, to justify the cost.

As I mentioned above, referring to your argument about livability, from the factors of tower spacing, floorplate size and tower height, height has the least impact on livability, while having the most impact on the factors above.

I am not saying it has no impact, but relative to each other, you will maximize your "societal" ROI when you have no height limits while keeping other restrictions in place.

Posted by: Anton at November 20, 2013 9:06 PM

@anonandon, Houston also grew more in geographical area than the entirety of San Francisco, so I'm not sure what your point is regarding population growth. SF could also have a rapid growth rate if it started swallowing suburbs and vacant land to build on.

On the other topic at hand, I too am interested in what Futurist has to say about all of the great neighborhoods in SF being built organically, while all of the disasters are from master planning (Fillmore, Civic Center, numerous projects, etc). The absolute best that central planning has done is give us Mission Bay - and that's the best! lol, it's not even in the top 20 neighborhoods in SF though...

Posted by: anonandon checker at November 20, 2013 10:53 PM

Does anyone here discern / care about the issue of architectural quality? The quality of building design in SF is appallingly low compared to other "big cities".

Lots of reasons, esp that the SF planners have given up trying to lead on this issue and bought into the lobbyist pablum "you cant legislate good design". The industry here basically doesnt care, because it doesn't pay, at least yet.

I would rather have some really good buildings of any thought than taller mediocre ones, which this cycle look like were getting all over again. which ones? Transbay tower (yes pelli-mediocre) if it every ever built, 181 Fremont, 45 Lansing watered down by latest developer, 375 Fremont, same thing...on and on....

New buildings in NYC make same thing here look like single-A Oneonta compared to Yankees.

Posted by: Louis at November 20, 2013 11:02 PM

My point about Houston is that though we have selected to live in a very dense walkable city, other Americans are selecting to still want a sprawling suburban lifestyle. I have come to realize the lifestyle I want is not what all other Americans want. I do not think I am right and they are wrong (I refuse to be a typical San Francisco finger wagging smug South Park stereotype), just curious what it is like to live in such a fast growing region like Houston. It is not just Houston, but Austin as well, and believe it or not, there is huge job creation going on there, and Austin is number 1 in job creation right now. Texas is on a major growth cycle whether we want to admit it or not and I would like to know why, since it would not be a place I would want to live.

But please don't let your San Francisco feathers get ruffled Mr. Checker, I am in love with denser cities like Chicago, San Francisco, London and Stockholm (All cities I have lived in) and have no desire to live in Texas. Relax, I still love it here.

Posted by: anonandon at November 20, 2013 11:11 PM

Texas is on a major growth cycle whether we want to admit it or not and I would like to know why, since it would not be a place I would want to live.

$$$

It's cheap. Nothing difficult to figure out.

(That's not a bag on Texas either, it's a legitimate advantage that it currently has, and will likely to continue to grow as long as it can remain cheap.)

Posted by: anon at November 20, 2013 11:18 PM

Well, here's a quickly typed primer on Houston for the SocketSite crowd, based on my understanding and lived experience (I am not in the real estate industry).

Houston's older, close-in neighborhoods (Midtown, Montrose, Heights, 3rd ward, East of Downtown, etc.) have been through 2 or 3 gentrification cycles in the past 15 years. Generally, the housing stock is a mix of remaining 1920s bungalows that have been mostly replaced with 3 story townhouses. There's been effectively zero regulation or limitation of this process; developer buys house, subdivides the 5000sf lot into three new townhouse lots, and builds. Commercial properties and older, low density apartments redevelop into 4-6 story apartment blocks. This process can occur very quickly because there is no rent control, tenant's rights, design review, EIR, CEQA, etc... only token limits on minimum lot sizes/deed restrictions in a few areas. As you may know, there is no land-use zoning; merely form-based zoning that specifies setbacks and parking. So, property turns over very quickly to chase market demand.

Current price points for new townhouses are 300k - 600k, depending on neighborhood and builder, and new apartment blocks rent for 2.00 - 2.50 psf. Older, nice single family homes are now 500-800k in desirable areas. However, keep in mind TX property tax rates are about 2.7%, so it puts significant pressure on sales prices. This process ground to a halt 2008, but ramped back up to full speed in 2012. I believe there's approx 10k apartment units coming online over the next few years in the mentioned neighborhoods.

A light rail line was added in 2004 which connected downtown, the medical center (worlds largest), and the football complex (old Astrodome, and its replacement stadium). Additional light rail lines are opening soon, going East, that will open new neighborhoods to gentrification and connect the new soccer stadium. A very useful, planned crosstown East - West line was killed by NIMBYs and some of our anti-transit Republican congressmen.

However, even with this activity, peak density in these areas is about 10k - 15k persons/sq.mi, or about the same as Berkeley (actually the resemblance between Montrose and Berkeley is striking). The weather remains hot and very humid most of the year, making it unpleasant to walk. Additionally, the necessary pedestrian/cycling/transit infrastructure doesn't exist to go car free without major compromises. Job centers exist all over the region, most very poorly served by transit.

Many inner ring suburbs built during the 1950s are now ethnic enclaves. They're actually very vibrant and interesting, particularly in SW Houston, which is the center of many Asian communities. Many very large apartment complexes built on superblocks during the 1980s oil boom for new construction workers have become immigrant communities. Population densities in these areas can be fairly high, up to 30k persons/sq.mi., but they are surrounded by suburban development patterns (fast, wide arterials, strip malls, no crosswalks and sidewalks, poor transit, etc.).

The outer suburbs I don't have much experience with. They are a mix of development corporation "master planned communities" and smaller developments in unincorporated areas. Houston has a hub-and-spoke freeway system, with concentric ring roads (610 loop, beltway 8, highway 1960, and finally the grand parkway). Active developments shifts around to whichever spoke freeway is the least congested at the time. They can be very cheap (150k for a family house) and some have good schools, but they are so terribly bland, with only national chains for retail, truly uninspired architecture, and no sense of place. Some, such as the Woodlands, have made an attempt to create an office district and "town center", with mixed results. The increased traffic has been responded to with toll roads and carpool/toll lanes.

The Eastern half of Houston is heavy industry, centered on the ship channel and the petrochemical industry. It's pretty amazing, if you ignore the pollution and documented health risks. Unsurprisingly, it's less affluent than the West side, but in some ways more vibrant.

The food in Houston is excellent and very affordable, and reflects the city's immigrant nature. The fine art scene is also very strong and developed. The economy is often counter-cyclical, but is doing very well at the moment. However, as described above, the built environment leaves much to be desired, the natural environment is perfectly flat and the ocean is 60 miles away, the weather is frequently terrible (and hurricanes, frequent floods, mosquitoes), outside of the cosmopolitan areas it can be very culturally conservative, and it's much more difficult to have a walkable, pedestrian oriented life.

Anyway, I've been here a couple weeks so far. I moved for both career and lifestyle reasons. Presently living and working in the East Bay and exploring SF and the rest of the Bay Area. I have to sleep now but I will start contributing to future discussions and perhaps provide some perspective on a different way of building a city.

Posted by: outtahere at November 21, 2013 4:51 AM

In case anybody's curious, here's a great web site that covers San Francisco's General Plan. Lots of information to dig into and may help the discussion.

Posted by: Can't think of Cool Name at November 21, 2013 7:04 AM

Let's stop calling the 27% "affordable units" and state what they really are "subsidized units". Private developers and land owners are the absorbing the costs for these units, not the government, not any one else.

Posted by: sf native at November 21, 2013 7:57 AM

Great post outtahere, thanks for contributing. As you probably know, the Bay Area can be kind of tough on newcomers, with rent control, Prop 13 and driving being difficult, if you are used to driving everywhere.

How is traffic in Houston? Is parking an issue?

Posted by: NoeValleyJim at November 21, 2013 8:08 AM

NVJim - I'll let outtahere comment on traffic but parking is a non-issue in most of Houston. Only the downtown seems to have any parking crunch and that's less than 5% of the city. Houston has invested heavily in regional freeways and expressways. Arterials are wide and with many lanes. But cycling infrastructure is spotty and disconnected. Many main roads have narrow curb lanes so cars can't safely pass bikes without changing lanes. That's nerve wracking when the posted speed limits are 40MPH and up.

Many streets and roads have no sidewalks. The lack of sidewalks is a big issue in fire ant country. Then there's the hot, sticky, and rainy weather to deal with.

So no wonder people mostly drive in Houston.

Posted by: The Milkshake of Despair at November 21, 2013 10:03 AM

Ha, its funny that some people think 300-500 feet is some kind of sweet spot. Does no one understand the concept of relativism? That number could easily be 600-900 feet in a different world, or 1200-1500 feet. Who cares? Its a building, it holds people, stop pretending there's a notion of the goodness of the height in the abstract.

Why do I think the building should be taller? Well, lets see, maybe if the developer thinks they can sell more units, maybe it should be taller?

What other benefit of a building is there except to hold people? I just don't understand how it could impact anyone's life negatively if the building was taller. Are we talking about transit issues, doesn't seem like it?

Posted by: Sam at November 21, 2013 10:24 AM

Height limits are very arbitrary. The SF skyline is very clunky looking from Dolores Park because of the tabletop effect that was legislated after the rather tall pyramid and 555 Cal were constructed, which look so awkward pointing up, gap toothed, all by themselves.

Posted by: sf at November 21, 2013 11:18 AM

And I don't think the Vancouver skyline is something to emulate.. it is rather bland. The SF skyline, even with its imposed tabletop, is much more dramatic and beautiful.

Posted by: sf at November 21, 2013 11:29 AM

Posted by: SocketSite at March 7, 2014 4:12 PM

The HIGHER the BETTER...as SF needs 1000s and 1000s of new residential units. Economics 101 (supply vs demand) will lower pricing...its a proven fact!!!

Posted by: tommybabe at March 8, 2014 6:40 PM

Posted by: SocketSite at March 18, 2014 7:48 AM

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