Plans for the soaring, 1,070-foot-tall Transbay Tower received their final approvals from the Planning Commission Thursday, clearing the way for construction of what will become the city's tallest building.
The decision also may have opened the door to the desperately needed funding to build what planners say will be the crown of the downtown skyline at 101 First St.
"This is the culmination of five years of work," said Paul Paradis, senior manager for Hines, the Houston developer of the tower. "It's cause for real celebration."
It's also a welcome bit of good news for Hines, which saw its deep-pocketed investment partner in the project, insurance giant MetLife, pull out this summer. Since then, a Sept. 30 deadline for Hines to provide the public Transbay Joint Powers Authority, which owns the land, with a non-refundable $5 million line of credit has passed with no action taken.
Negotiations are continuing, said Adam Alberti, spokesman for the authority.
But while Paradis declined to discuss details of the tower's financing, he said the commission's actions could provide a real boost in attracting investors.
"An entitled piece of land in San Francisco is a valuable asset and investors realize that," he said.
The 61-story tower is the centerpiece of an effort to re-envision the city's downtown.
The new office building will be part of a 145-acre Transit Center District that will include commercial high-rises, residential towers, hotels and retail space, all wrapped around a planned Transit Center that will be the hub for local and regional bus lines, as well as the underground terminus for the proposed Caltrain extension and the statewide high-speed rail line.
The new center is part of an effort to create what the plan for the area calls a "dynamic urban center." Expanding the city's traditional downtown, with its emphasis on high-density office building, to the transit-rich SoMa neighborhood would make the Transit Center "the center of downtown, reinforcing the primacy of public transit in organizing the City's development pattern."
Cash cow for project
"For years there has been a strong desire to create a very-high-density district around the Transit Center," Planning Director John Rahaim said Thursday. "The tower has been in the plan since Day 1 and was meant to be the centerpiece of the larger district."
It's also a cash cow for the transit project. Much of the anticipated $185 million sales price for the tower site will go toward construction costs for the Transit Center and Caltrain extension.
The completed development will change the look of the city. The Transbay Tower will be the city's tallest building, 217 feet taller than the 853-foot-tall Transamerica Pyramid.
There have been plenty of complaints about the size and bulk of the buildings, as well as the number of people it will bring into the area and the shadows the structures will cast on public parks and open spaces.
But at every turn, city officials have told opponents that the mega-towers are the best way to meet San Francisco's growing need for office space and residential units close to transit.
There was little argument about the project from the commission. The only dissents came from commissioners Kathrin Moore and Hisashi Sugaya, both concerned about shadow impacts.
"There's a need for a certain amount of density for (a project) to be successful," said Commissioner Gwyneth Borden. The tower "is an integral part of the Transit Center."
The next step for the developer is to complete the details of the sales agreement with the authority. The transbay authority "is working with Hines and will be happy to get an agreement," said Alberti, the agency's spokesman. "No one is circling a date on the calendar, but the talks can't go on in perpetuity."