One Montgomery Site

San Francisco’s Planning Department has just finished its preliminary review of the proposed plans for a 500-foot tower to rise atop the iconic Crocker Bank Building at 1 Montgomery Street, a site which is theoretically zoned for development up to 250 feet in height. And in short, the Department is not a fan.

From yesterday’s letter to the development team:

“The Planning Department does not support increasing the height to 500 feet. The Planning Department does not support the loss of privately owned publicly accessible open space (POPOS) [atop the bank building], nor a qualitative diminishment of the existing POPOS. The project should demonstrate how the POPOS is enlarged and enhanced qualitatively to meet square footage requirements. New shadows cast on public plazas, parks or open space are likewise discouraged. Demolition of the historic resource and/or features is not supported. The Department recommends a code-complying proposal and encourages sustainable design.”

That being said, Planning also notes:

“In previous eras of city building, the height of new development within an area might be expected to vary considerably. The pressure to maximize development on a site was not as significant a factor then. Under such conditions, extended areas with the same height limit did not pose any city form problems. A natural variety of heights resulted in a complex, interesting city form.

There is now, however, an increasing tendency to build to the height limit, particularly in height districts lower than 400 feet. When many buildings are constructed at the height limits, a visible lining up of building tops occurs. This phenomenon called benching causes an awkward city form.

To avoid this benching effect, narrower height districts of varied height and mechanisms which allow greater height for more slender buildings should be created. Height limits should be structured so as to allow the presence of new buildings to affect the existing skyline in a positive way, softening existing “benching,” and providing more variety and interest in the skyline and general view of the city.”

The proposed 1 Montgomery Street tower, for which the site would have to be legislatively re-zoned, would either become a 234-room hotel, a 52-unit condo building (with one five-bedroom unit on each of the top five floors and 47 three-bedrooms below), or a mix of the two. We’ll keep you posted and plugged-in.

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Comments from “Plugged-In” Readers

  1. Posted by Notcom

    “Demolition of the historic resource and/or features is not supported.”

    Not that I was a fan of the proposal, but WHAT historic resource? The roof garden dates from 1982.

    • Posted by Mr Pants

      What they probably mean is “Old looking building”.

  2. Posted by Stop Driving

    Not sure anyone is terribly disappointed with this decision given the diminishing returns on these sorts of projects. Table, er bench, this project for the next RE peak.

  3. Posted by kicked in the sun

    man, i fantasize about them just rebuilding the old building (maybe taller). at any rate, pulling the old building down was such a travesty, the head of the street looks ridiculous from south of market. they propose to expand the POPOS, even though that POPOS isn’t so great (and there’s another one on the sutter street side) and anyway there’s now a mechanism for paying the city off rather than doing a POPOS. hotel rooms and apartments are both desperately needed right now, and this is a great site, without neighbors to annoy. the proposed building would be surrounded on all sides by buildings of the same or taller height. no curb cut or parking ingress is proposed. finally, the crocker galleria is always empty and anything that activates that space will be good for the fidi – shuttered, unpredictable shops just feed the cycle of decline there.

    planning is broken, can’t see the forest for the trees.

    • Posted by Serge

      They should indeed rebuild the old building. Would be amazing to see a newly constructed classical or beaux-arts building in downtown. Heck, an art deco one would be a much appreciated addition to the sea of sameness that popped up after the 50s. Really wish the Grant and Sutter development would have gone the art deco route.

      • Posted by Patrick

        A newly constructed classical or beaux arts building would be a Disneylandish travesty.

  4. Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

    The developer could address Planning’s cognitive dissonance over height limits and benching by changing the tower’s envelope. Instead of a monolithic prismatic slab, introduce a setback halfway up the tower so the top portion is more slender. They’d lose some floorspace but could maintain the desired height.

  5. Posted by francis

    benching occurs when the height limit is set far below what is economically feasible.

    • Posted by Kyle

      Yup. Funny how Planning never seems to mention that.

  6. Posted by mjtowns

    To Kicked In The Sun, I agree, the Crocker Building should never have had the upper floors removed of that iconic building. With that said, I am not a fan of mixing old architecture with new architecture. However, the plans looked nice. The new tower appeared to be tall and slimmer than the surrounding buildings. Certainly the Crocker Galleria would benefit from the foot traffic if there were residential and/or hotel units built on the proposed site.

  7. Posted by Dave

    Who’d have thunk?! Absolutely correct call by Planning. Way too late though – they just noticed the table top effect?! The skyline has been ruined as anyone coming across the BB or looking from Diamond Heights can see. A long dark wall that hides the hills and is cold and foreboding.

    Nothing can be done now to rectify the damage done already but…

    At least in the old financial district downzone (in height) all parcels that are zoned for more than 20 stories to save what rare glimpses of blue remains from street level there.

    And don’t allow any up-zoning in height beyond what is in place in the remaining areas of the city. I’d actually like to see a HUB downzoning, but the odds of that are not great. At least don’t allow Hub 2.0 up zoning to occur.

    In the Central SOMA do not allow block after block to be filled with 8 story boxes from lot line to lot line. An 8 story table top is as unattractive as a 40 story table top. Retain some of the lower 3 story blocks that are common there now.

    • Posted by SFRealist

      If the skyline is really ruined, why not just built it to 500 feet? It’s ruined anyway, so what’s to lose?

    • Posted by Futurist

      Who actually really thinks or talks about “skyline ruining”?

      Completely irrelevant. Cities are not designed nor looked at in the context of a “pretty” or “appealing” skyline. They are designed for livability and human interaction, movement and delight.

  8. Posted by wiger toods

    Benching sucks and so do Paris and DC!

    • Posted by Brian M

      Paris is just so oppressive in its sameness. They should have preserved more 14th century one story shacks and built La Defense right in the center of town!

  9. Posted by MyOddCommentHandle

    that would be a really great loc for a hotel. SFO BART right over to Montgomery station to your hotel’s doorstep.

    and a Michelin restaurant -or- McDonald’s / Starbucks split.

    that’s one prime corner

  10. Posted by jamesjr

    Trying to predict what Planning will approve is like reading tea leaves.

  11. Posted by anon2

    “When many buildings are constructed at the height limits… causes an awkward city form.” Hahaha.

    So they made an arbitrary height limit that was less than the height demanded, and now they are upset that people are consistently building up to that limit. In related news, telling a group of kids they’re only allowed to eat 3 Halloween candies each will not in fact decrease their desire to eat candy.

  12. Posted by MB

    Why should heights be limited smack dap in the middle of downtown? That corner of all places in SF deserves soaring heights so close to the transit hubs! Next time go higher and break through the table top plateau if they’re so concerned about “benching”.

    • Posted by Mark

      Sorta like the TTC next to the Salesforce tower? Oh wait, that’s not a transit hub. It’s a bus station.

  13. Posted by Futurist

    I totally support Planning on this issue: We don’t need to build up EVERY single space in San Francisco to the allowable height limit.

    The existing open space is a welcome respite from the dense downtown. The open space BETWEEN buildings is also a welcome break.

    Prime corners as many like to call this does not mean full development. Open space for people is also a highest and best use, in this particular location.

    • Posted by SFRealist

      Of course this building does not build up EVERY single space in San Francisco. This is one place, on top of transit. Is there a single better location in all of San Francisco for a tall building? Name one!

      • Posted by Futurist

        Yea, pretty simple. Plenty of other spaces in SOMA.

        • Posted by SFRealist

          Which other spaces in SOMA are immediately above BART and MUNI?

          • Posted by Futurist

            What’s your point? You mean that if a building is not immediately on TOP of a Bart or Muni station, then that building is not viable or useful?

            Ridiculous. Myopic.

          • Posted by SFRealist

            No, my point (see above) is that this is there is no better location in all of San Francisco for a tall building. It is directly above transit and if DTX ever happens, it’ll be a couple of blocks from that. If we should build tall buildings anywhere, this is the place.

          • Posted by Futurist

            I disagree with you completely. Your reasons, or arguments can be disputed. There are MANY viable locations for more high rise construction other than this much needed and preserved public open space.

            Your argument seems to say that people can NOT walk a few blocks or so to the nearest Bart or Muni station, but MUST be on top of the station to make their lives a little bit easier.

            Not buying it.

          • Posted by SFRealist

            Nope, not my argument. My argument is that there is no better place to build a tall building than here, right on top of MUNI and BART.

            Yes, there are other viable sites that could also be developed. We could develop them too. But my argument (again) is that there is no place better than here.

  14. Posted by BTinSF

    A nice 250 ft truly (not pseudo) beaux arts (or very well-done beaux arts acknowledging) tower built within the existing facade at that loction would be fine with me. I don’t want anything modernist, anything showy that diminishes the Crocker remainder but something that ostentatiously serves and enhances it. Rebuilding the old building might be ideal but that isn’t going to happen. What could happen with some compromise (what the SFPD may need to give on is the square footage of POPOS) is very desirable as compared to what is there now and the SFPD should hang tough.

  15. Posted by SFRealist

    “Benching”. I haven’t heard that one before. They’re getting creative over at Planning.

  16. Posted by invented

    The Planners sound like veritable idiots. Their superficial and naive fixation on the form of the skyline….. they should be required to travel to world cities to see how great cities become. Benching?

  17. Posted by Marten

    This project goes back on an original agreement to allow the Crocker Tower, so I say no to the entire project.

  18. Posted by MyOddCommentHandle

    anyone talking Open Space needs to recognize that SF has waterfronts on 3 sides of the city and more parks and walkable spaces that almost any other city in the US.

    i understand not building 50 floors blocking the water views, but this is just tall neighbors wanting to keep their “elbow room”.

    along transit hubs is where they should build extra tall.

  19. Posted by Dandywhatsoever

    I’m sorry, buy did they just make up the term “benching”? I can’t find any reference to it anywhere outside this context.

    • Posted by Dave

      It’s commonly known as the table top effect. Why Planning used the term who knows. They identified the problem and the resolution – smaller/fewer hi-rise zoned areas. They are 20 years too late unfortunately, but maybe they will follow their own advice and start strategically lowering height limits in certain areas.

      • Posted by MB

        How does smaller/fewer hi-rise zoned areas resolve the “table top effect”? That visually leaves the table top effect unchanged. Increasing the height limits in those areas would be the proper resolution as we need more buildings to break through the plateau to create more variety of height.

      • Posted by SFRealist

        Note that Dave congratulates Seattle for building more, thinks Oakland should build more, but thinks San Francisco should built less.

        • Posted by MB

          Yeah, I’ve learned to take whatever “Dave” writes with a grain of salt. He obviously does not have SF’s best interests at heart.

          • Posted by kicked in the sun

            not to mention the fact that he thinks the answer to the table top is to downzone!

        • Posted by Dave

          San Francisco is a small postage stamp at the tip of a Peninsula. It has about 10% of the region’s population and even less of its land mass.

          SF can’t sustain being the main focus of housing and, more importantly, office development for the Bay Area. I support ongoing office construction in the Bay Area that does not worsen the housing imbalance – which more office development in SF w/o a corresponding development of housing. The Central SOMA plan exemplifies the office/housing imbalance. And that does not aggravate the transportation crisis. BART and the BB are near capacity and upgrades like another tube are decades away.

          Smart growth is needed at this time in the Bay Area and, when I see it, I support it. As in the spate of recent housing developments proposed for Oakland. I’m waiting for SM County assume part of the burden by encouraging mid-size housing development along El Camino from SSF to Burlingame.

          • Posted by Jake

            No problem as SF is neither the main focus of housing or office development in the Bay Area. The main focus of housing development moved to the east bay after the 1906 quake and has never returned. The main (wide) focus of office development moved to the Santa Clara Valley decades ago. FWIW, the population center of the Bay Area is somewhere around Hayward and gradually heading southeast. Santa Clara County has more jobs than SF and twice as many residents as SF. Alameda County also has nearly twice as many residents as SF. SF probably does lead in per capita navel gazing.

    • Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

      Yeah, I would have thought that “plateau” would be more descriptive than “bench”.

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