San Francisco’s Imposing Transit Center Ready to Roll at Last
By John King
San Francisco Chronicle
Image courtesy the San Francisco Chronicle
For the past decade, the transit center that will replace San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal has been the subject of grand plans and political controversies, struggles to stay on schedule and squabbles over costs.
This week, all that changed.
On Aug. 12, transbay bus service began at the $2.16 billion Transbay Transit Center, which stretches nearly three blocks between Beale and Second streets, just south of Mission Street. East Bay commuters entering the city by bus will travel traffic-free above downtown streets from the Bay Bridge into an elevated concourse.
The new station should also attract Bay Area residents and visitors who never ride a bus. For them, the lure is a 5.4-acre park that fills the roof above the concourse: Eight distinct gardens ring a long, oval path. Within the park is everything from a picnic meadow and a children’s play area to a two-story restaurant with a terrace 80 feet in the air.
There’s plenty else up in the air, figuratively speaking, including such questions as whether commuter trains will ever find their way to the transit center, and whether the rooftop park will be marred by the open drug use and disturbing behavior that now make some downtown blocks seem unsafe. Or, as planners and boosters hope, it will become the busy centerpiece of the new high-rise district around it.
“From this perspective you really get the layering,” said Adam Greenspan, standing in the middle of a lush meadow, steep towers on all sides. “The green mound, the glass mound, the lawn, all rolling over the architecture.”
Greenspan is a design partner at PWPLA, the landscape architecture firm responsible for the transit center’s rooftop park. On the west, the meadow blends into a hillock topped by Australian pines. On the east, it meets a children’s play nook.
The firm is part of the design team led by Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, which was selected in 2007 by the Transbay Joint Powers Authority — a public agency created in 2002 to replace the terminal that opened in 1939 as part of the Bay Bridge project. When demolition of the little-loved original began late in 2010, the target date to complete the first phase of the new complex was October 2017, with commuter trains and high-speed rail arriving at an underground concourse two years later. Budget for the overall project: $4.2 billion.
Now, the earliest date for train service is 2029. The budget is at least $4 billion for the rail phase alone. And neither number is carved in stone, since most of the second-phase financing hasn’t been pinned down.
The rooftop park, though, meets the early promise of a verdant and vivid world unto itself.
“This isn’t just a lawn dotted with trees,” said College of Environmental Design alumnus Peter Walker, FASLA, (B.A. Landscape Architecture '55) the founder of PWPLA and a landscape architecture legend whose Bay Area work dates back to the 1960s. “This is a roof garden, and it has its own story to tell. We want to connect on an intellectual level as well as an aesthetic one.”
That approach might not please visitors in search of nothing more than, well, a lawn dotted with trees. But the goal is a kaleidoscope of overlapping environments — from the drought-tolerant succulents at one end of the park to the water-friendly rushes and river birches at the other. In between are terrains including an Australian garden and a “prehistoric garden” and an oak meadow, plus the large central plaza and a grass amphitheater that can hold an estimated 800 people.
Downstairs, the mood inside is airy rather than lush.
The Grand Hall, entered from a plaza at Mission and Fremont streets, has 32-foot-high glass walls and a sparkling terrazzo floor embedded with mosaics of flowers and birds — one of four large works of public art, this one by Julie Chang. Beneath a large skylight there’s an escalator that takes you on a 52-second journey to where buses will loop slowly around a central island that offers waiting passengers fragmented views of nearby buildings through the outside wall’s lacy metal panels.
While the transit center and its rooftop park are an unusual pairing, they’ll be managed in a way that’s in sync with the latest set of high-profile city parks. As much space as possible is programmed, with events and offerings designed to attract different groups throughout the day.
The model is Bryant Park, which shares a block of midtown Manhattan with the New York Public Library. Long a haven for drug dealers and petty criminals, the space was rejuvenated in the 1990s — with not just physical upgrades but also an array of mostly free enticements, from juggling classes to a well-stocked outdoor “reading room.”
All this is a contrast to the center’s hulking concrete predecessor, as well as the informal, open-air temporary transit terminal at Howard and Beale streets. The aim is to give bus travel a cachet — no easy feat in today’s America.
Ultimately, the inauguration of bus service at the transit center is just one part of a much larger journey — a journey that already has had missteps and surely will have more.
Read the article in full here.