Four years ago this past Friday, on August 12, 2018, we saw the long-anticipated grand opening of one of San Francisco's grandest infrastructure projects in decades. Since then there was an abrupt closure due to structural concerns, a reopening, and we've had a lengthy pandemic that has kept the area surrounding Salesforce Transit Center pretty sleepy. But the building and its rooftop park remain shining examples of innovative urban development and canaries in the coal mine of a slowly reviving downtown, waiting for you to return.
The big opening event for San Francisco's replacement for the former Transbay Transit Center — part of a joint development project with Salesforce Tower, previously known as Transbay Tower, that led to a design competition in 2007 — was a crowded affair. The $2.26 billion project caused many headaches for downtown commuters during its eight-year construction, and San Franciscans were thrilled to finally see the new bus deck, the grand new lobbies, and the majestic rooftop park in action that August day four years ago.
As Hoodline reported at the time, the debut of the new "Grand Central Station of the West" came with "perhaps the biggest neighborhood block party the city has ever seen."
That opening was short-lived, as you'll likely recall. A little over one month later, in September 2018, a crack was discovered in a steel beam underpinning the bus deck, and this led to closure of the entire facility and the closure — for safety — of the two underpasses that went beneath the building on Fremont and First streets.
30 bus lines had to be redirected back to the temporary Transbay transit hub nearby, and traffic was pretty nightmarish in the area for weeks.
"Motorists are kindly asked to avoid driving downtown," the Transbay Joint Powers Authority said in a statement at the time, and "transit riders are encouraged to allow extra time for their commute."
Relatively few locals got to see the transit center and the rooftop park in the six weeks it was first open, so many of us would wait almost a year, until July 2019, to get a good look at the place when it finally reopened. Two four-inch-thick steel beams would turn out to have been cracked — the fault of errors in fabrication and "weld access" holes drilled into the beams, and they were successfully replaced with disaster fully averted.
As SFist reported, the rooftop park reopened first, on July 1, 2019, followed by the buses getting rerouted to the transit center a few weeks later. At this point, more of the public also got to see a piece of LED public art in the main atrium by artist Jenny Holzer. The piece, titled "White Light," features scrolling words from historic and literary texts about the Bay Area, some of which are only a few seconds long, and some of which scroll for over an hour.
Other public artworks at the transit center are by James Carpenter, Julie Chang, and Ned Khan, and Chronicle critic Charles Desmarais dismissed them all as a little too polite and "subsumed into a vast machine of commerce."
As the LA Times reported, the July 2019 reopening also included the unveiling of that weird gondola up from street level to the rooftop park, which the paper summed up as "basically a glass cube that holds 25 people on a 40-second journey" and "There are also elevators."
There are still regular events in the park, including bird-watching walks and jazz concerts. Fitness SF, which has a gym on the second level of the transit center, continues to host regular outdoor HIIT and yoga classes in the grassy area by the amphitheater in Salesforce Park.
The retail spaces on the ground floor still were largely empty at the time of the first and second openings — and many still remain vacant or building out to this day. The Transbay Joint Powers Authority (TJPA), which oversees leasing, only had about seven months, after all, before the pandemic turned downtown SF into a ghost town.
Lessees like former SoMa bar Eddie Rickenbacker's and Tycoon Thai restaurant have laid claim to spaces in the transit center's ground floor, but neither business has made it open now three years after the big reopening took place. A listing of available space from the TJPA shows about 29% of the retail spaces — seven out of 24 — still up for grabs, while it's not clear when some of the leased but still not open spaces will come alive.
There's only one available spot, meanwhile, on the second floor of the transit center, as well as one 1,320-square-foot kiosk on the rooftop level.
A groundbreaking event is happening Thursday for the largest of the rooftop-level spaces — an area near the Second Street end of the building that will eventually be home to the NFT-backed, upscale restaurant and membership club known as SHŌ, being led by Japanese chef Sho Kamio. The multi-level building seen below has not yet been constructed, but there are currently plans to be open sometime in 2023.
The private club, which will offer three tiers of membership perks to NFT investors — whose funds will be put into the restaurant and club development — and memberships will cost as much as $300,000 at the outset.
As for when construction may start on the long-delayed, and still controversial DTX — the downtown extension of Caltrain tracks, with high-speed rail capacity as well, from the current Caltrain terminus to the underground levels of Salesforce Transit Center, which many say is the main reason for this building to exist — is completely up in the air.
Top image: ctoebe/Instagram