One tower or two? San Francisco’s newest skyscraper wants to play it both ways

San Francisco’s tallest new tower wants you to think it really isn’t a tower at all.

The east side of the shaft is 350 feet high, its grid of stacked square windows in a dark blue skin. The western half rises another 45 feet, accentuating its verticality with white fins that flare out and fade into four-story waves.

The even weirder lower nine floors could be remnants of the boxes the tower arrived in – one partially clad in chalky black brick and a quartet of two-story slabs stacked on top of each other, wrapped in different materials while coming out this way and that.

The confusion is not accidental: this 640,000 square foot skyscraper marks the end of the skyline at 5M, a 4-acre mixed-use development tucked behind Fifth Street between Mission and Howard Streets, which is intended to feel like a natural extension of the low, culturally diverse terrain associated with its surroundings south of the market.

Despite these good intentions, the result is an awkward fit that demonstrates that you can’t reduce architecture to a kit of parts. But at ground level, the varied pieces of the mix hold enough promise that over time, something resembling a true community hub can emerge.

The overall complex includes the massive 25-story office tower with the address 415 Natoma St., one of the many alleys running through the 5M site. A 200-foot-tall apartment building called The George with 302 units, 92 of which are priced below market levels, is bordered by Minna, Mary and Mission streets. The project also includes the restored four-story Dempsey Building and a smaller masonry structure which, for now, stands empty.

In the middle of it all? Three small private parks designed by landscape architecture firms Melk and Cliff Lowe Associates. The largest features a pick-shaped lawn and a relaxed wooden stage, with huge blue wind deflectors in the shape of abstract mushrooms.

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People enjoy a lunch break at a mini park between Natoma and Minna in San Francisco.

Yalonda M. James, Staff/The Chronicle

The developer is Brookfield Properties; the land was previously owned by Hearst Corp., which owns The Chronicle and secured approvals with Brookfield before selling the site to the New York developer (these approvals also allow Hearst to replace the old Examiner building along Fifth Street with a residential tower in the future). The couple donated the four-story Dempsey Building to the Community Arts Stabilization Trust, which leases space to community nonprofits and provides space for local art exhibitions and events.

All of these are compressed into a location close to the Moscone Center and the Union Square shopping district, but also large blocks filled with small buildings where apartments house the neighborhood’s last remaining residents of Filipino descent.

This complexity is an integral part of the 5M, according to the designers.

“The idea is
to be a continuum of the walk from downtown to SoMa – it’s a very different place, said Laura Crescimano of Sitelab Urban Studio, who oversaw 5M’s overall urban design. That’s why private mini-parks include a play area for young children: “It’s not so much about withdrawing into yourself as creating an oasis with canvases that stretch outwards.

The architects at Kohn Pedersen Fox, the global firm that designed the 415 Natoma, echo those sentiments.

“We didn’t want a heroic modern building, but something that would celebrate the intimate scale” that still defines much of SoMa, said KPF design director Trent Tesch. “Our desire has always been to make the building smaller than it actually was.”

This is one of the reasons for the jagged shape of the nine-story base – the overhanging sections also help to deflect afternoon winds – and for the bonding of the skin treatments, black brick to the towering opaque glass with its contrasting facade surfaces to the east and west.

“Grain and texture and a little grit,” was the goal, Tesch explained. “If we clad everything in one facade, it would be almost obscene.”

In other words, 415 Natoma is… big. The lower 10 floors in particular are heavy, an attempt to attract tech companies that pre-pandemic were eager to be in the big city but wanted Silicon Valley-scale floor plates.

The George isn’t sleek and shapely either. Instead, imagine 20 floors of apartments rising directly from the sidewalks that surround it. The windows swing back and forth every floor or two. The haphazardly placed metal panels of the facade in a range of hues from penny red to dusty green are meant to suggest copper as it oxidizes.

“There’s a certain beauty in imperfection, in accepting how things change over time,” said architect Travis Throckmorton of Ankrom Moisan, the designer of George’s.

Give the 5M team credit for avoiding the predictability, housing formula or commercial space boxes we see too often. Realistically, however, these buildings are what they are – tall structures that required Supervisory Board approval in 2015 to go beyond previously zoned height limits. Spatial contortions or a mix of materials do not give the impression that they have always been there.

There’s more to architecture than the wallpaper you choose.

The most intriguing aspect of 5M is the conscious effort to use the public realm to define the character of the project.

A view of the mini-park between Natoma and Minna from the top of the George Apartments at 434 Minna St. in <a class=San Francisco.”/>

A view of the mini-park between Natoma and Minna from the top of the George Apartments at 434 Minna St. in San Francisco.

Yalonda M. James, Staff/The Chronicle

The string of parks crosses Mary Street and threads its way between two buildings. Mary Street along the George is now closed to cars, with the same brick and cobblestone paving as the squares. The richly intricate stonework along the base of 415 Natoma turns the corner from Howard and leads you onto a spacious new sidewalk. (Bricks also frame large windows that allow you to see the one-block lobby — a space the developers say is open to the public, though it hasn’t been on several occasions this month when I visited 5M alone.)

5M’s stated goal is to create a multi-building, culturally complex destination that functions as a vibrant neighborhood resource. The squares buzz with life when local school kids stop by or there are neighborhood festivals, like the SF Undiscover gathering last weekend that celebrated Filipino culture. At other times, 5M’s low-key security guards have the place pretty much to themselves.

The real test will be whether 5M can develop its own appeal. We won’t know soon, given the ongoing depopulation of the downtown workforce in the wake of COVID. But the ambitions are real, and it’s much better than not trying at all.

John King is the urban design critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: Twitter: @johnkingsfchron

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