How Heller Manus Is Transforming San Francisco’s Skyline
Heller Manus Architects president Jeffrey Heller likes to dream big. His firm has designed some of the tallest high-rises in San Francisco while incorporating innovative design.
Bisnow sat down with Heller to discuss his firm’s work on some of the city’s newest buildings, the latest in design and the biggest challenges in San Francisco. Heller is above next to a model of the city, which highlights new development spanning the next five to six years.
The city is on the brink of a significant shift. With the last available open lot being built up at 350 Bush, Heller said downtown San Francisco is out of land for new developments.
“It’s a new era,” Heller said. “You have to remodel and add on top.”
This will ultimately put pressure on the Central SoMa plan, which the city's board of supervisors is considering rezoning for higher buildings. If those changes are approved, the Heller Manus-designed 505 Brannan under construction could be much taller than the initial design, Heller said. The building, which will house Pinterest’s new headquarters, is slated to be 85 feet, but if zoning heights are increased, Heller said the firm is ready to add height to the building. He said he’s always tried to stay ahead of zoning changes.
An ongoing challenge in San Francisco is Prop M, which has led to about 9M SF chasing after 1M SF allocated for office, which will make it even more difficult for many office projects to receive approval.
After Many Hiccups, 350 Bush Nearing Completion
Development challenges do not faze Heller, who has been in the business over 40 years. His firm, which was formed in 1984, has already worked through some of the most difficult projects.
“These projects all take a long time,” Heller said. “They are a decade in the making. A fast project is five or six years. It involves a lot of patience … It’s hard work for a long time, and it’s also a bit of luck.”
Heller said 350 Bush (above under construction as of early January), a project that has taken more than 15 years to complete, is one of the most difficult projects he has ever worked on. Heller said he saw two market cycles go by before construction began on the site.
Because the project included renovation of the landmark Mining Exchange, the team had to go through several different agencies to receive approval from the Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board, which meticulously reviewed the renovation. The project also went through parks and recreation, the planning commission and board of supervisors.
The construction and renovation were unique. Construction was allowed around, over and under the Mining Exchange, which increased costs. Crews had to hold the Mining Exchange building in the air with 400 tons of transfer beams to dig 30 feet under the building for a new foundation (as seen above).
The site itself has a long and colorful history. The original owner, Walter Shorenstein, had a falling out with the city council in the 1970s over fees. He eventually razed his building, leaving the site at 350 Bush empty for decades, according to Heller. A new project under the direction of Walter's son, Doug Shorenstein, received initial approval in 2000, but the dot-com bust put the project on hold.
Shorenstein Properties, in a partnership with Swig Co and Weiler & Arnow Management Co, eventually sold the fully entitled land at 350 Bush and the neighboring 500 Pine St to Lincoln Property for $65M in 2007. The Great Recession hit and the only leasing opportunity for the site was from the EPA, which wanted a new headquarters and said it would agree to a 15-year lease. But the economy was so bad, no one would finance the project, stalling progress yet again.
The 19-story, 360k SF tower at 350 Bush is marked for completion this year. The design links the renovated lobby (rendering above top left) at the Mining Exchange as an entrance into the tower, which will include Twitch’s new 185k SF office. The project includes an extension to St. Mary’s Park, which will be built on the roof of the sister project at 500 Pine St (rendering above bottom left) as part of a deal with the city to add additional square footage to the project.
Innovations In Design Technology
Heller said his firm and other architects have benefited from computer technology, which has had a dramatic effect on design. Without technology and computers, the unique design of buildings like 181 Fremont (rendering above), developed by Jay Paul Co, would have never been possible. Data and analysis allowed Arup to come up with shock absorbers for the building, for example.
Heller Manus also was able to create a design where there are no straight lines with angles along the building’s edge. The tower topped off late last year and occupancy of the office space is expected by November. Heller Manus also has partnered with Foster + Partners for the design of the Oceanwide Center, which has a unique design that will reshape the city’s skyline. The project is expected to be completed in 2021.
Technology has allowed for more cohesive work with partners in China, where Heller Manus has designed buildings in 16 cities. Heller said his work in China started around 2004 after he first visited Shanghai; he was so enthralled with the city he instantly wanted to be a part of it. Heller entered the Chinese market designing the Eastern Harbor International Tower in Shanghai (above), a 26-story, 430,556 SF tower that was the first LEED Gold certified high-rise in the city.
“I am lucky to be at this stage in my career to be really doing some of the most interesting work that I’ve ever done and that [the firm has] ever done with the promise of the future and making more of a design statement than in the past,” Heller said. “I feel extremely lucky about that.”
Evolving Silicon Valley Designs
Other projects his firm is designing include a new office complex in Menlo Park. The Menlo Gateway, developed by Bohannon Development Co, consists of four buildings and a parking garage. Three eight-story office buildings designed by Heller Manus total nearly 700k SF and will contain large floor plates. A walkable plaza links the buildings. One building is under construction facing the freeway and two other buildings will face the bay. The project includes an 11-story hotel not designed by the firm.
“We’re trying to make the site more people-friendly and more walkable and not just buildings plopped on the site where people can’t walk to them,” Heller said.
The low-density and lower scale developments along the Peninsula and Silicon Valley have led to less available land and will lead to an eventual need to rezone to increase density and height, according to Heller.
“Because of the sprawl, traffic problems are enormous,” Heller said.
As a board member of the Bay Area Council transportation committee, Heller is working to solve large regional traffic problems. He said the council, along with local leaders, is working to a create a road map that relies heavily on rail, building a new BART tunnel and increasing ferry usage. He said the traffic problem will ultimately involve state and federal agencies as well as public and private funds.
“The frustration level of drivers is generating a real will for a solution,” he said.