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The Bigger They Are
Transamerica Pyramid's would-be neighbor shot down by SF Board of Supervisors
555 Washington looks small, but it remains twice as tall as zoning allows, part of the reason the project was overturned.
Courtesy Heller Manus

San Francisco is known as a city where it can be tough to get most anything built, and the fate of the condo tower known as 555 Washington has given that image a few more polishes. The proposed high-rise located next to the Transamerica Pyramid squeaked narrowly through the planning commission only to be rebuffed by the board of supervisors, who wield the final yea or nay on many city projects. The board voted 10-0 to uphold two appeals against the EIR by neighborhood groups.

The new tower would have replaced the two shorter ones to the left of the pyramid.

During its meeting last week, the supervisors asserted that the EIR did not fully address the shadows and wind tunnels that would be created, along with transportation issues and aesthetic impacts of the 430-foot tower. More than twice the height allowed by current zoning, the project triggered a highly politicized debate. Four of the supervisors voted to hold off on a final decision about the EIR until May 18—giving the developer more time to negotiate with the opposition—but they were in the minority, so the project is finished for now.

Except that the developer has given up, as well. In an interview with AN, Andrew Segal, who was representing project backer Aegon, confirmed that there would be no second try. “There’s a loss of confidence in the process,” Segal said. “If it was just a matter of redoing an EIR, that would be one thing, but it’s pretty clear that there’s no appetite for the building in San Francisco.” He added that the EIR had gone through extensive public scrutiny, “It’s complete and thorough,” he said.

One local group appealing the project EIR was Telegraph Hill Dwellers, who had protested the building’s height in addition to “several other exceptions and variances from the code,” according to a statement released prior to the supervisors’ meeting. Former board of supervisors president Aaron Peskin, who is known for opposing development in the area, described the project in a follow-up interview as “brazen and audacious” and as making “a mockery of the downtown plan.” He said: “The moral of this story is, ‘When you shoot the moon, sometimes you get nothing.”

The run-up to the board meeting included a letter to the supervisors from Segal, who warned that “any additional cost and time associated from yet more environmental review will render the project economically infeasible.” In addition to the building itself, the proposal had involved the purchase of a public alleyway and creation of a new public park.

Lydia Lee