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Above: City's Second-Tallest Building; Below: Lush Public Pleasure Garden

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The planned oasis in the shadow of 1st and Mission tower is so extravagant that the city doubts it would survive

Oceanwide Center at 1st and Mission streets will feature two enormous high-rises, one of them to be the second-tallest building in San Francisco, at 910 feet.

But the building proper won’t actually begin until 70 feet in the air, because the seven or so stories below that will be wide open public space, serviced by sumptuous designs the project architects showed to the Planning Commission yesterday.

Stefan Behling of Foster & Partners, who designed the building, pitched the commissioners on what the towers would do for us plebeians down on the street. Under the city's planning code, the size of the project mandates a certain amount of public open space, and also that none of the buildings block off the twisting mass of alleys nearby.

Behling pointed up what Foster calls the "urban room," a combination public plaza and retail space beneath the tower, with cafes, a grocery store, terraces on multiple levels, and public seating spread across multiple mini-plazas, all surrounded by greenery. "There will be security, so hopefully people feel happy and safe coming here at all hours," Behling promised.

Kathryn Gustafson of landscape architects Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN) showed off designs to turn the corner of 1st and Mission into a veritable jungle, repeatedly referring to the green space as a garden rather than a park. "SoMa has the worst tree coverage in San Francisco," Gustafson said. "You need something like 50 percent green space to create a garden feel; Union Square has only 20 percent, and we’re going to have 46."

Plants and trees would form "alleys" that direct people to the various "rooms" of open space beneath the shelter of the tower. There’s even a decorative recycled water fountain that, when turned off, doubles as a stage large enough for a four-piece band.

Gustafson's design was so bucolic that the commissioners decided they had to rain on her parade a little. "This landscape looks more like Hong Kong," said Commissioner Kathrin Moore. "Our climate does not allow for creating tropical gardens, between the harshness of the wind and the gray days."

Commission Vice President Dennis Richards (who watched his mouth this time) agreed that the designs put him in mind of Singapore, which doesn’t really work for our foggy, wind-scoured peninsular.

Some neighbors expressed anxiety about what will happen when Jessie Street is rerouted around the new buildings, and about whether the towers violate Prop M and its cap on the amount of new office space the city can add each year.

Despite those possible woes (and chastising Gustafson to ditch the orchids), the commission gave a thumbs up to the plaza designs, and the proposal can continue winding its way through the guts of the development process.

If completed as presently planned, Oceanwide Center will add 1.35 million square feet of office space and 650,000 square feet of residential housing to the blocks around the Transbay Center.