Last Call For The TransBay Terminal

Last week, Urban Ambles wandered down to the Transbay terminal for one last time. The terminal has been , for years, the terminus of transit to and from the East Bay, and the terminal is slated  for demolition. In its place is planned a spectacular new station that is hoped to be a nexus for not just East Bay commuters, but Peninsula trains, in-city passages  to Bart and Muni, and the coup de grace; high speed rail from Southern California. They were giving tours of the station, and I joined in. It was an odd mix; a small horde of camera toting enthusiasts set against the usual commuters for whom it was just another day, and the “residents”  who call it home.

The terminal at one time represented state of the art transit planning, anchoring the western terminus of the bay bridge, receiving the trains that once crossed its lower deck. Its grander lobby has long since been hacked up into a warren of corridors and ticket booths, but at one time, one can imagine a modest grandeur to the place:

Back from 1991-93, as an East Bay resident , commuting to the City without easy access to BART, this was ‘my terminal’.  It always reminded me of the  sad, dusty transit stations of my youth in the rustbelt, stations oversized for their dwindling populations, and often populated by  shifty denizens who called the ample wooden benches home. It also never failed to bring back the scratchy memories of my first cross country adventure- that on a greyhound bus at age 19, traveling from Syracuse to Las Cruces, New Mexico of all places. My first introduction to the west, as seen from the window of a greyhound, as well as the stools  of untold bus terminal diners, (such as we saw on our tour this day). I would sometimes sit waiting for the C Bus to North Oakland back then, and drift back to that bus adventure’s excerpts:  a mad 10 minute walk with a blind man in St.Louis to touch the arch, a drunken poet on the bus in Kansas, selling poems for 25 cents, an actual cowboy heading to work in Colorado, and oh so many other drifters, (and all the while-we going through our Kerouac phase, an all too ready audience for  ‘grizzled-world-weariness). So, there I would sit, occasionally , and think of those memories, as I awaited the C Bus to North Oakland.

Amidst the ever renewing and moneyed splendor of California, this place  always seemed a slice of an alternative universe, for those whom missed the “California Limited”. I noted, as grim as this place could be,  that  it served as a makeshift community center. I suppose a sad commentary on the state of affairs in San Francisco , but it had a function, where one was obviously needed. But its time has come.

As an architect, I always greet with sadness the passing of a structure. I think of those involved in its creation, and having been there, I  know how much so many had to give to make it happen.  But while we may bemoan the loss of some edifices, this one clearly has outserved its usefulness. Even in its prime, it could not hold a candle to the likes of the Ferry Building ( capitalizing on the ultimate way to enter our near island- BY WATER!) as the signature entry point to San Francisco. Its time has passed, and it is time to make way for the future.

So, can one still design a robust enough space that both embraces  the collective aspirations of a region, as well as affords the smaller moments of communal embrace so crucial to nearly all of us?  I believe that we can, though the renderings  understandably emphasize the grandiose. The real question is all about the small moments. A boy of 19, waiting for the train, sees a new piece of the world and never forgets it. That is the real magic of place.