The East Cut

Awhile back, I was having a conversation with someone who lived in the East Bay, near the border of Berkeley , Oakland and Emeryville. In trying to pinpoint where she lived, she said, “you know its right in the heart of NOBE” . I had not heard that moniker before , and was told it was THE hot East Bay area right now. NOBE meant North Oakland, Berkeley, Emeryville. That’s NOBE.

New names for neighborhoods pop up from time to time, first as a myth, then in regular conversation, before the fait accompli of enshrinement on Google Maps. Inevitably these are areas that are undergoing change, either built or demographic, or both. The most well known recent San Francisco example was the Western Addition, a portion of which suddenly was known as NoPa (North of Panhandle). Not surprisingly, this rebranding can be controversial with long time residents, who associate it with gentrification and displacement.

This post then is about another rechristened San Francisco neighborhood, one reborn through dramatic change in the in built environment. It is know as “East Cut”.

East Cut is a rapidly changing area of San Francisco, which combines the largely commercial neighborhood around the new Transbay (now Salesforce) terminal, and the new residential high-rise neighborhood on Rincon Hill. These two areas were subject of San Francisco Planning Department Plans over the last 15 years, and have now nearly been built out. As such, I thought it a good subject for some exploration. But first , more on the name.

The branding of this area was hatched by Collins (no relation !), an “independent strategy, design, and communications company”. Per the East Cut neighborhood website, this is a map of the neighborhood.

The name East Cut is taken from a historical alteration of Rincon Hill. The Hill, to the right side of the map above, was a serious impediment to commerce in the area around South Beach. In 1869, one of the local landowners initiated a plan to take a significant slice out of Rincon Hill:

The East Cut in progress- 1869. Image courtesy FoundSF
The finished product, with a bridge at Harrison. Image courtesy FoundSF

So this 19th century earth moving begat “East Cut”. (Question- isn’t the cut on the west side of the hill?)And honestly, that is probably preferable to RiHiTraBa. The logo, three broad stripes, is meant to indicate the three districts of the neighborhood- Transbay, Rincon Hill……. and Folsom Street? The first two are clear, but I am not sure there IS a Folsom Street district, which is puzzling. Folsom is a hoped for retail heart for the street, but it largely serves as the line demarcating the two areas. So a curious choice to base one’s whole branding concept.

I decided I would poke around, starting at the Montgomery BART station and the Transbay District, and gradually head up to Rincon Hill, ending at the Bay Bridge. Here is the route:

Its easy to stay on track here. East Cut is a Community Benefit District, which means local businesses contribute to its upkeep. So you are never far from a reminder as to where you are: You will see this throughout the area when walking.

Beginning along Mission Street, one can see some of the early fruits of redevelopment in the area. The JP Morgan (1) building at 560 Mission is a very elegant high rise, designed by Cesar Pelli of New York. It looks like an import from New York or Chicago with its refined and highly detailed rich deep green-black skin, and meditative little plaza to one side.

But the centerpiece of the Transbay area development is the long planned replacement of the old Transbay Terminal (now christened the Salesforce Transit Terminal (2) along with all the adjacent towers. The Transit Terminal has been years in the making, and I have been doing this long enough that I actually wrote about it almost 10 years ago:

“Last Call For The Transbay terminal”:

The old building looked the part of the sad inner city bus terminal. I used it for several years commuting from San Francisco to Oakland. The entire area was a tangle of overpasses serving the station. The area was dark , dank, and a bit shady. A saving grace was a great Moderne bar improbably named “Cuddles”, in the bowels of the building, which came in handy if you missed the bus. (and I did miss my bus). The waiting areas had banks of classic wooden benches, which were most often used as beds.

On the transportation side , the new terminal was to replace and modernize the bus transbay connections, in town MUNI service, and best of all, create a new rail hub- to receive Caltrain from San Jose, and high speed rail from Los Angeles. Not surprisingly, this last piece is lagging badly, and I am not sure we will see that in my lifetime. For every one thing San Francisco gets very right (removal of Embacadero freeway and revitalization of the waterfront), it gets another thing very wrong, in. this case, spending billions on the utterly wasteful an interminably delayed Chinatown Subway, the most expensive per mile transit project in the country. That money should’ve gone to this extension, with an extension of a surface line on 4th to downtown rather than the subway.

The other component of the station is to conjure a bit of civic grandeur- the “Grand Central of The West Coast” . Grand Central Terminal in New York is the gold standard in American train stations. The first time I arrived there I was spellbound- the rush of commuters in all directions, the hushed din, and the spectacular volume.

The SF Terminal building is narrow and has to leapfrog streets, so the opportunity for a grand interior space like that is not possible. The result feels more like an elegant entry to a shopping mall.

Of course, in the midst of the pandemic, the terminal is quiet. I really hope all the traffic comes back and this place thrives, but without the rail connections, the hubbub may fall short of expectations. On this day , I saw only three other people, one of which was incredibly in the bathroom stall I needed. These things only happen to me.

The great civic gesture for the building is not inside but on top of it, the grand 3 block long rooftop park over the terminal below. It is a delightful high-line like elevated walk that weaves between downtown buildings, offering some marvelous vistas towards and into adjacent buildings. This has become an instantly popular spot downtown. And I finally figured out what bothers me about the building straight ahead. It’s bit crooked, the top section bends to the left. I know it has to be a structural consideration, but it’s like seeing a painting on wall that’s just off level. Drives me crazy.

After descending from Salesforce Park, one can spend a moment at the base of the new tallest building in San Francisco, the Salesforce Tower (3). It was also designed by the office of Cesar Pelli, and like the JP Morgan building, exhibits a finely crafted skin of mullion and sunshade laid over a bowed envelope. It is very handsome.

Of course, all this new office space has become Topic A on the future of downtowns, namely how many office workers will return post Covid. In general, the more techie, the more apt to be more remote I would think, and there is no doubt that there will be a glut of vacant office space for the foreseeable future in downtown San Francisco. (Do office buildings become repurposed as luxury housing with tall ceilings? )Salesforce actually occupies only about a third of this building, so we shall see how this plays out. In the meantime , their post-it like signage can remain on the building.

Walking through this neighborhood, you find yourself inevitably acknowledging these “post-its” on buildings. It’s as though one is driving past homes of Hollywood Stars, but rather than noting the home of Gloria Swanson, its the San Francisco version, a more mundane acknowledgement of bookmarks in your browser. “Ohh, there’s LinkedIn!!” “So that’s where Pinterest is, (I wonder what floor my photos are on?)…..look its DocuSign, so that’s where my contract went”. Loook- Pornhub”, where?, the one with no windows.” (I didn’t see Pornhub).

So much has changed in this area. As I mentioned, when I first moved here in ’88, the area was a tangle of freeway overpasses. It was a pretty shady area, literally and figuratively. And right in the middle of it, sat the building below, the Phillips Building (4) , a splendid moderne style warehouse south of Salesforce on First. This was a bit of an icon in the Architectural community, many small creative firms got their start here, many happy hours inside. A lovely old warehouse with huge industrial windows, I worked in one just like it nearby. Where I worked, designer floors alternated with Chinese sewing operations, and the service elevator rides up and down were interesting. We were the original interlopers then. Then the first tech boom hit, and a lot of these companies, us included, were priced out by the next wave of interlopers . And now it had gone to the next level. But now post-pandemic, with less demand , maybe more cheap space will open up.

But honestly, I don’t get too nostalgic for these spots as workplaces – I sat on a metal stool hunched over a drafting board all day, and don’t get me started on how unbelievably cold it was in these buildings in the winter. At 59, nothing but Class A office space for me…… or the back bedroom. But the building never looked better.

I mentioned at the outset that the branding of the whole area is premised on the three bars, representing three neighborhoods. This is Folsom Street (5), the second of the three, and it really is more a divider between Transbay and Rincon Hill than a place itself . Its potential lies in the fact that there are restaurants and cafes in or planned, is a two way street rather than the one-ways that convey traffic too and from the bridge, it has bike lanes, wider sidewwalks, and some decent sun.

But it will have to overcome the industrial legacy of the area. In a number of places , some structures just aren’t interested in contributing to a vibrant urban street, such as this PG and E substation, a colossal bunker. But they have their place in this fabric, as does the old blacksmith shop next door (really, a blacksmith), now a Cannabis Dispensary.

From here, we move into the final area of East Cut- Rincon Hill. Like Transbay, this area was (and still is) a victim of the Bay Bridge, as traffic pours through this area at all hours to get on and off the freeway. Mostly what I remember of Rincon Hill for years was that 76 clock that could be seen from everywhere. How often I would check the time while sitting having drinks at the Hotel Utah, timing my walk to the Transbay Terminal and home to Oakland. Thank you 76 Tower for your service, and yes, the commute could be a bit boozy back then.

Rincon Hill has developed as San Francisco’s first truly high rise neighborhood. It was always striking how few high rise residential buildings there were in the City, none built for years. In fact, for decades- the 80s,90s, into the oughts, very little housing of any kind was really built here, other than a lot of really tacky SOMA “lofts”. One of the main problems, and I saw this first hand, was, and is, the dysfunctional Planning process in San Francisco, where individuals can hold up new projects for months through the often abused discretionary review process.

Finally , San Francisco hit on a solution. Build where there are no neighbors- Mission Bay, Market Street, and now Rincon Hill.

Rincon is a tough area to walk in. The streets are often choked with traffic getting on and off the Bridge. And most of the buildings acknowledge this, they are more about what’s above, glamorous apartments with drop dead views.

Interested in creating your own glamorous sky-pad? The 2 bedroom apartment below in the Harrison is available right now for $6,200 per month:

At street level the buildings try to create a bit of their own identity. I was struck by the Harrison (6) , which is evoking a 19th century reading room?? One would never imagine you are mere feet from the the onramp to the Bay Bridge in here.

So San Francisco finally has its own high rise neighborhood, evoking a bit of Vancouver in the process. Thousands of much-needed housing units have been added, both here and in Mission Bay. And yes, above is a luxury apartment, but a number of dedicated affordable housing developments have been built as well.

But the high rise apartments do not occupy all of Rincon. Elements of the past survive. Just off First, right on the edge of where the East Cut eventually stopped, sits Guy Place and Lansing Street (7), a marvelously quiet little loop that seems positively surreal in comparison. I have always felt the two things that truly set urban San Francisco apart are of course its topography, and its in between places- alleys, paths, stairs, that define a smaller scaled more intimate world completely set apart from the surrounding area. And this loop represents that, up to and including that it seems to sit on the edge of what’s left of the East Cut.

Meanwhile, across First at Harrison, the nautical past is represented by the Sailors Union of The Pacific (8), built in 1950.

The building was designed by William Gladstone Merchant, and includes a hiring hall, large auditorium, and a lobby with magnificent scale models of sailing ships. It is a study in Nautical Moderne, streamlined detailing, portholes, horizontal windows. This still is a functioning union hall, albeit serving a smaller union. The building in some ways felt like the square rigged ships in the lobby, a preserved scale model of a larger past.

There are two busts outside , a pair of Scandinavians who were instrumental in the founding of the union. This serious looking fellow is Andrew Furuseth a Norwegian who was an early leader who helped establish that union, part of the robust labor tradition in San Francisco. I suspect he would have no time for the Keto craze.

From here, one can descend the Hill. If its open, Rincon Green (9), a private park, is a much-needed bit of green in this auto dominated neighborhood. Part of the Rincon Plan was devoted to providing mid-block passages. These spaces, a nod to streets such as Guy/Lansing, provide some relief from the street and are fine places to find some quiet. You can find this one down the hill between the Lumina towers (10)

No tour of Rincon Hill would be complete without mention of the twisty tower”Mira”(11), designed by the firm of Jeanne Gang of Chicago. It riffs on the traditional San Francisco bay window, twisting the building in roughly 10 floor intervals. It is quite striking from a distance, though I prefer my buildings with a little less shimmee Perhaps its an homage to an earthquake as well.

As one descends to the bayfront and Embarcadero, we come to the end of the walk. The old Hills Brothers Coffee Building (12) sits here, with the Bay Bridge looming overhead. Once dominating this end of the skyline, now the tower sits as a small Meditteranean foil to the new glass city beyond. It anchors a small plaza that opens to the bay, the coffee-making has long since left the neighborhood.

And finally , the we reach Bay Bridge (13) towering above, getting ready to land on Rincon Hill, the din of the traffic 100 feet above your head, with many of those cars getting ready to descend into the East Cut.

From here, one can return to Market Street along the magnificent Embarcadero, to the Ferry Building , with connections north south east and west. Along the way, there is a pier that one can walk out on, and from out at its end, offers a nice distant view of the East Cut. From here, one sees the office towers that may (or may not) be filled again with workers, the high-rise apartments with drop dead views , and those odd bits of an older San Francisco, all tumbling gently down to the Bay.