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June 21, 2017

Transbay Transit Center: Everything you need to know about it

Curbed San Francisco

Adam Brinklow

Towering terminus humanizes neighborhood skyline by giving San Franciscans a rooftop park and event space

While the South Beach and Yerba Buena neighborhoods have grown up (and up, and up) over recent years, the new Transbay Transit Center-would-be crown jewel of the neighborhood and linchpin of a transportation network that will, should all go according to plan, one day stretch all the way to Los Angeles by rail-has been spreading.

At a modest five stories tall, instead of soaring up it's been growing out, 1,400 feet from one end to the other, like a concrete giant that decided to lie down for a nap between Beale and Second streets.

As such, it's almost impossible to appreciate the scale of the soon-to-be-finished first phase of the building until you step inside, like we did for a hard-hat tour with senior construction manager Dennis Turchon.

It's been Turchon's job to oversee a crew of 700-plus on-site workers putting the pieces together since 2012. Now he's in the homestretch-the first phase of the station must be finished this year.

"It's a concrete thing now-literally," he says of watching plans long in the making become real.

The original Transbay Terminal was a Depression-era artifact-and quite a depression piece it was by the end of its life, rundown and seeing only a fraction of its former volume of commuters.

The new project wants to be all things to all people: not just a bus and train station, but also an architectural display far removed from the hunkered-down concrete design of the old building, a treatise on innovation as the planned terminus for the state's high-speed rail project, a Union Square-grade retail hub south of Market, and a centerpiece for South Beach as a neighborhood.

Or as the city and the Transbay Joint Powers Authority prefer to think of it, Transbay as a neighborhood. "It's an entirely new neighborhood," says facility manager Martha Aragon Velez. "How often does a city get to do something like that?"

If the transit center is going to succeed-not just as a business venture and a way of unifying the pieces of the region's transit needs, but also as a building that confers definition and identity onto the surrounding blocks-its best asset is the PWP-designed park on the roof.

Not necessarily because of the landscape itself (although it is shaping up to be quite lovely), but simply because, as a wide-open perch high above the streets, the park gives San Franciscans a place from which to confront and relate to the changing skyline.

On one end, the Salesforce Tower protrudes audaciously into the sky. On the other, a few blocks away, the Gothic grandeur of the PacBell Building keeps its peace. Between them, San Francisco's past and present spreads out in a panorama of architecture and history.

Critics of the new, taller San Francisco sometimes find its scale disconcerting. "Manhattan was always tall, [...] very antithetical to the idea of San Francisco's connection with nature," Jasper Rubin, chair of Urban Studies at San Francisco State, said of the skyline in 2015.

Indeed, it's easy to feel overwhelmed and intimidated by the scale of new construction from street level.

But from the roof of the transit center, with the skyline spread out like a buffet on all sides, the new scene appears a little more accessible. It's helpful being able to look at the city eye-to-eye again.

Here's a peek at the work still being done, along with everything you need to know about the incoming transportation collaboration over the next six months:

  • The substantial completion date for the first phase is December 22, 2017. "But that doesn't mean buses will be running that day," cautions Turchon. Coordinating the comings and goings of all of the transit agencies will take time in itself, and bus service won't happen until early 2018.
  • Though originally budgeted at $1.9 billion, Turchon tells Curbed SF the final price tag will end up just under $2.26 billion.
  • The entire building will run over 1 million square feet, one-tenth of that consisting of retail space.
  • The Transbay Joint Powers Authority, which serves as developer on the project, formed back in 2001, nine years before demolition began on the old Transbay Terminal.The original Transbay Terminal dated to 1939. The erection of the Bay Bridge combined with gas rationing during the war made the terminal extremely popular in the 1940s, serving 26 million people annually.
  • TJPA calculates that the new Transit Center will service more than 45 million passengers per year, or about 100,000 on an average weekday. All of those people are going to come in via a dozen transit agencies that will connect with the building.
  • Note, however, that 100,000 a day is a long-term goal, as some of the relevant agencies won't connect to the station right away. In fact, some-those related to the state's high-speed rail plans-don't themselves even exist yet.
  • Agencies include AC Transit, BART, Caltrain, Golden Gate Transit, Greyhound, Muni, SamTrans, WestCAT Lynx, Amtrak, Paratransit, and (fingers crossed) High Speed Rail.
  • The 1.3-mile Caltrain extension, bringing peninsula trains downtown instead of to their present Fourth Street terminus, will cost more than the entire first phase of the transit center ($2.6 billion), and has only just begun preliminary study.
  • A planned BART pedestrian tunnel "will connect the east end of the Transit Center's Lower Concourse with the BART/Muni Embarcadero Station" via a block-long passage under Beale Street.
  • But those rail-related plans are part of a planned second phase of construction, which hasn't been budgeted or fully planned yet.
  • Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, the firm behind the related Salesforce Tower design, designed the structural element.
  • To avoid making transit spaces feel claustrophobic, the design incorporates as much natural light as possible, including the dramatic centerpiece light column. "[Even] on a dark winter day the light reflecting off the awning will light up the bus deck," Turchon says, noting that the qualities of the light change distinctly with each season.
  • The design of the lacy awning surrounding the building (crews were preparing to install the final elements during our visit) borrows from geometric formulas of British mathematician Roger Penrose.
  • And it also takes on the character of the surrounding neighborhood. "It looks like it's changing colors, because it's reflecting the buildings around it," Turchon points out.
  • The rooftop park is 5.4 acres, and measures some 1,400 feet from one end to the other.
  • On top of green space, the park will include restaurants, a cafe, a playground, and an amphitheater for rooftop concerts and live performances.
  • Also, roughly 470 trees will be added. Turchon's favorite: monkey puzzle.
  • Piling mountains of soil on top of a building like this wouldn't be seismically sound, so inflexible building foam makes up most of the park's foundation.
  • However, as Turchon pointed out, the trees need a base of real soil around their roots too, to keep water and nutrients from escaping.
  • TJPA anticipates that the entire project will create 27,000 regular new jobs in the city.
  • Transbay jobs related to transit center operations will run up a bill of some $20 million per year, according to the San Francisco Chronicle's Matier and Ross. "We expect to have an operating deficit" at first, TJPA executive director Mark Zabaneh told the paper.
  • But Transbay facility manager Martha Aragon Velez says she remains optimistic about filling retail space quick enough to fund building operations. "There's only a 1 percent vacancy rate on this side of Market," she told Curbed SF. "That shows a lot of pent-up demand." Retail analysts Kidder Mathews estimated 1.8 percent retail vacancy citywide at the end of 2016.
  • All told, workers in 41 U.S. states have contributed something to the building, mostly via manufacturing. (The only states left out: South Dakota, Vermont, Maine, Montana, Wyoming, Virginia, Mississippi, Hawaii, and Alaska.)
  • The two 134-foot, 670,000-pound cranes used during the major construction themselves took two days to build from more than 100 pieces each.
  • Digging took up over a third of the construction time, from December 2011 to February 2014. More than 640,000 cubic yards of material came out of the ground.
  • The excavation went so deep that it dug down to the "Old Bay Clay" level of strata, the 130,000-year-old blue-green soil deposits that predate the last Ice Age.
  • Archaeological digs underneath the site revealed a variety of Gold Rush artifacts, including a surprising number of creepy broken dolls.
  • Also unearthed: The 13,000-year-old tooth of a Colombian mammoth, now part of the California Academy of Sciences collection.
  • Almost all of the concrete from the destroyed original terminal ended up recycled.
  • A four-story, human-like statue built from leftovers from the old station was planned, but had to be scrapped as it ended up over budget.
  • The center features a mini eastern span of the Bay Bridge, which can be seen from Howard Street between Second and First.
  • Residential tower 181 Fremont, featuring a $42 million penthouse, will open sometime in 2018.
  • A movement is afoot to change the Transbay Transit Center's neighborhood from Yerba Buena/South Beach to the East Cut.

For the full story and photos, go to Curbed San Francisco.

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