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Monday, March 27, 2023

The Missed Connections of San Francisco's Gleaming New Transit Station

Rolling into San Francisco’s new bus terminal has all the vibes of docking with a Googie space station—the weird, special bridge into the hangar, the orange color accents behind a white superstructure, glowing information screens everywhere. The hieroglyphically obtuse wayfinding signage only adds to the effect. I may have gotten on a bus in the East Bay, but I’m disembarking on Space Station V, in transit to Clavius.

That’s no moon. It’s the “Salesforce Transit Center” (owing to a naming-rights deal with the company that owns the skyscraper next door), a $2.26 billion hub for the city’s Muni buses, as well as buses from across the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges—and Greyhound. Some day, if all goes as planned, it’ll be where California’s commuter and high-speed rail lines arrive in San Francisco.

The station is a white whale eight years in the making (and that’s just the construction bit), a crystalline Moby Dick with Penrose-tile skin breaching the downtown grid and drafting the psychogeographic currents around glass-and-steel towers. I like it; San Francisco feels new there, and even though a building that’s aesthetically to my taste might not be to yours, there’s urban glory in bustle, in elegant skyways and in clotted mazes of streets opening onto a broad pedestrian plaza. I like the aluminum screen, and I like the orange walls inside, though I’m suspicious about how well they’ll age as color fashions change and urban soot and fungus go looking for new substrate. The big, main open space of the station has a beautiful tile floor under a grand light well, and its high escalator makes it feel like a place where a human can make a big entrance or a big exit. If you don’t have a downtown cathedral, at least you can have a downtown transit station.

The station isn’t complete. Street-level spaces I assume will be for retail and restaurants haven’t opened yet. Workers are still finishing planters and sidewalks. An entire floor that’ll be a food court is still bare concrete. So it’s hard to know whether the station will do all the things that a grand transit node does in other cities—a Gare du Nord or a Shinjuku. It has no shops yet, no place to buy a beer for the ride and a bouquet for your honey, food for dinner, a pair of reading glasses, a magazine (OK, no one buys those), an aspirin. Nobody is playing drums on plastic buckets next to an escalator. There are no homeless people, and the almost total absence of places to sit suggests an attempt to design them out of existence.

I’m being intentionally unfair here; Gare du Nord sees 700,000 people a day and Shinjuku more than 3.5 million. The Transbay’s peak capacity is 24,000. This is a small-town station with big-city ambitions. But the thing is, when you start to ask questions about what the station does not have, they multiply. It aspires to be a beating heart for the city, but this “Grand Central of the West” isn’t connected to the rest of the circulatory system.

After the ride down that escalator, the experience slides from grand to confusing. Wayfinding signs give general directions—Muni this way, Amtrak over there—but without the specificity that could help get travelers from this bit of the city to the rest. San Francisco’s grand Ferry Building, itself a transbay transit hub, is half a mile away, a 10 minute walk. Not only is there no direct connection from the Transit Center, there’s not even signage indicating how to get from one to the other, nor a protected bike path.

(That’s another question that demands more questions. With all the sidewalk-rending construction of the past decade downtown, how is there no protected bike path from the Caltrain commuter rail station to the Salesforce Transit Center? For that matter, how is there no protected bike path connecting the Ferry Building to the Golden Gate Bridge?)

The broad plaza I like on the transit center’s south side—it’ll be a bigger park eventually, and it already has food trucks—connects to narrow little Natoma Street. That's where the bike lockers and bike-share dock are (until phase two puts them under the terminal), and what has become, with the terminal’s opening, the luckiest bar in the city. Keep walking on Natoma, and if you can manage to get across busy New Montgomery (there’s no light or crosswalk), you get to amble down what another town might call a paseo, and might even put little stalls for coffee and tchotchkes in, if citizens on foot were allowed to enjoy themselves. That puts you at a hidden inside elbow of the new SF Museum of Modern Art, a cute secret courtyard that angles you out toward another little paseo … across a multiple-lane street without a crosswalk. There are planters that try to keep you from attempting the jaywalk. I do it anyway.

Oh, but the hilarious part: Turn right at those planters and you see you are a block away from San Francisco’s nearly-completed, newly rebuilt convention center. Yes! An easy, sub-10-minute, mostly car-free walk connects the Transit Center to one of the city’s major destinations. This, apparently, is a mildly dangerous secret. Presumably it won’t remain that way, because in a month basically everyone in that adjacent naming-rights skyscraper will be walking that way to get to the annual Dreamforce conference—last year it hosted more than 170,000 people. Expect a lot of jaywalking.

Phase two of construction on the project aims to more firmly embed the terminal in the city’s fabric. The heavy rail lines that today end at a station about a mile south will go underground and stop in the Transbay’s basement. An 800-foot tunnel will connect that basement to a subway station a block and a half away that also serves San Francisco’s electric trolley line and abuts a cable car stop. The timeline for all that is somewhere between “inshallah” and “alas.”

The missed-connections theme picks back up with the Transit Center’s marquee feature, its rooftop park. Salesforce Park is open to the public and includes nearly 5.5 acres of grass, undulating hills, and some really interesting plantings that represent different California biomes, with good signage explaining what’s what. The green space doubles as gray-water treatment for the building, and it enfolds performance spaces, carts with games to play, coffee carts, seating areas … look, it’s pretty charming. Cities too often force a binary choice between being street-level or up high. Salesforce Park literally forces you to have a new perspective on San Francisco; a walk in the park means being able to look into the windows of the adjacent office buildings, and I like being at eye level with their giant light-up signs. Of course, some local wags have dubbed the park “San Francisco’s High Line.” (Every time a West Coast city names some feature after one in New York I lose more ground in my war to make the East Coast irrelevant.)

But like the High Line, the Transit Center is less a park and more a walled garden. It is access-controlled. Two adjacent buildings have their own entrances; other than that, you have to go up through the terminal or, when it’s finished, ride a (very cool looking) cable car up from street level.

This only matters programmatically. Which is to say, controlling access controls the uses of the park. There will never be a political demonstration in Salesforce Park. There will never be unapproved buskers. The trees and grass don’t touch the ground; their roots are literally up in the air. The park is open to the public, but it is not a public park, if you see what I mean.

Would I rather the Transit Center had captured its aerial value some other way? A residential tower/hotel on one side, a commercial skyscraper on the other? Yeah, I probably would like that, because I am the kind of person who thinks Shinjukus and Gare du Nords are more than emblems. I love the form of the Salesforce Transit Center. I just wish it were following more functions.

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