Modern Buildings and Privately Owned Public Open Space at San Francisco

Most of San Francisco’s modern high-rise buildings are clustered near the city’s financial district. Much of this expensive real estate was once part of the bay. If an area is dead flat in San Francisco, like it is in the financial district, there’s a good chance it is reclaimed land.

The process of infilling the bay in the area that became the financial district began during the Gold Rush in the middle of the 19th Century. Initially the land reclamation was unplanned. Many crews of vessels arriving in San Francisco abandoned their ships, lured off by the promise of finding gold in the hills. With no sailors available to man the ships, a return to the port of origin was not possible. This left a surplus of unused vessels to rot at the docks in the bay. Some of these ships were dismantled and the materials repurposed. Others were scuttled in place at their moorings, beginning the process of filling this area of the bay. Eventually, the abandoned wharves became the template for the city’s modern street plan. Years later, after the infill was completed, San Francisco’s forest of tall buildings rose on top of the ship’s graveyard.

On the scale of the world, San Francisco’s high-rise buildings are not architecturally adventuresome. There’s nothing like what can be seen in Dubai or Valencia Spain. Nevertheless the district is striking because of the mix of building styles. (San Francisco’s geography helps too!) Modern steel and glass behemoths have risen amongst of the grand post-1906 earthquake financial buildings. Both the old and the new buildings are interesting. It is worth walking around the district, looking up, and peaking in to see some of the open lobbies.

A curious quirk of San Francisco’s city planning rules creates a feature that even many residents of the city are unaware. Newly constructed large buildings must allow for publicly accessible open space. This space can be on the ground level or it can be in another place in the building. Often the builders find it easiest to accommodate the required public open space on a rooftop deck.

These privately owned public open spaces are not always clearly advertised from the street. Fortunately there are maps available, which can guide the inquisitive to these open spaces. Once found, a privately owned public open space can be visited, as long as the business is open. By rule these public places are only required to be accessible by the public during business hours. After hours access is often not possible.

Most of San Francisco’s privately owned public open spaces are clustered around the Financial District. Sometimes the views from the rooftops allow unique perspectives of the City. Other times all you will see is the backside of a neighboring building. There’s no requirement that a POPOS actually be a view-worthy destination. At street level it is hard to guess what you might see up above. It is a good reason to go up and look. Plus, viewing from above sometimes makes it is easier to imagine what the area looked before the bay was filled.


The Crown Zellerbach Building at One Bush Plaza: This designated San Francisco landmark has open street level public open space.

One of the best views of San Francisco’s growing skyline is from Mission Delores Park.

The Transamerica Building, long San Francisco’s signature tall building, viewed from a nearby rooftop privately owned public open space.

One Sansome Street, also known as Citigroup Center

San Francisco’s Financial District has an interesting mix of old and new buildings.


The Salesforce Tower climbs above San Francisco.

San Francisco’s new tallest building, the Salesforce Tower, under construction.


The Hobart Building, completed in 1914, is flanked by modern neighbors.


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