High above-crowded streets in San Francisco’s Financial and Soma Districts, secret rooftop and terraced gardens are open to the public. Warm and sunny urban plazas hide behind sweeping staircases and colonnade entrances at street level, all thanks to planning laws that mandate open spaces amongst the concrete and glass in SOMA and the Financial District.
343 Sansome Street
The Sun Terrace on the 11th floor of 343 Sansome Street, behind the Loews Regency Hotel, has spectacular views of downtown San Francisco all the way across Treasure Island to the hills of the East Bay. A photographer’s delight, the terrace blends hardscape urban design perfectly with Mediterranean plantings of olive trees, native ferns, and large-leaved perennials. A warm and sunny spot that’s not well known, it’s often people-free, except for the occasional smoker taking a break. Although quite secret, there’s a Starbucks off the grand Art Deco lobby downstairs where archeological artifacts unearthed locally are displayed.
The plaza at 50 Fremont Street is the perfect SOMA setting for lunch, an early morning pastry with an espresso, or a late afternoon chai latte. Although at street level, the minimalist plantings can usually be enjoyed by the few locals and office workers who love the sunny, sheltered spot warmed on windy days by reflected concrete sunlight. There are plenty of restaurants surrounding the plaza and stylish round café tables to eat at.
There have been complaints that the signage to the 6th-floor rooftop garden is too discrete. That’s great for the sunny space towered over by skyscrapers, as it is most often a lonely spot to be treasured. Cypress trees in granite black triangular planters and French lavender nudged into fragrance release by warm concrete give this garden the most European of feels. Yet its contemporary design strength is enhanced by a light reflecting Ed Carpenter tubular installation, which helps the intimate space feel larger by emphasizing the garden’s city canyon setting. The views from the balcony are spectacular, the tables and chairs spotless clean. This is a lovely spot and a must-see.
The patio garden discretely tucked away from view behind the reception desk at 100 Pine Street is a gem of urban landscape design. Tucked into a corner, towered over by buildings, the inmate conceptual concrete space is a smooth urban gem. A cool spot served by Lou’s Sandwiches Cafe, with marble, steel and surfaced concrete pillars. The patio also has a triangular water feature that is enjoyed by birds and cuts traffic chatter to a minimum.
The atrium inside the magnificent London–Paris Bank built to impress in 1912 is straight out of Walter Benjamin’s, The Arcades Project. Lit by a ginormous cantilevered glass ceiling held aloft by elegant arching pillars, the white marble slab floors cast light back up along the walls to create a movie setting location. Sit back with a coffee and enjoy the black marble fountain creating ambient noise as you people-watch. This is San Francisco’s most opulent cathedral of money given over to a public space. On rainy days, the sound inside the open-sided building is Eno-esque and can be enjoyed with a rich hot chocolate from Bread and Cocoaaround the corner on Sutter Street.
It’s true, the Crocker Galleria is not a well-kept secret, as the outdoor 3rd-floor rooftop garden is crowded at lunchtime. However, it’s beautifully situated atop the arcade emporium of high-end shops and can be reached by a stairway on the second floor. The Galleria becomes a popular Farmer’s Market every Thursday from coffee time until after lunch.
Reached by a grand course of concrete steps, the open terrace public garden at 100 First Street is reached on the Mission Street side next to Proper Foods. Hipper than most of the Fidi public spaces, this is SOMA after all. It’s peopled by hipsters and office workers in skinny jeans and t-shirts. This space is larger than most and enclosed by the Transbay Transit Center construction zone behind and the sheer cliff of the glass-clad office high-rise next door. The stolen landscape glimpsed from techie steel café tables accentuates the changing face of developing SOMA. Along with the plantings, architectural trees and reeds in water features, there’s a wonderfully modern fountain where birds bathe. Like all these open-space gardens, this terrace is regularly pruned, trimmed and fresh.
The Sky Terrace next door to the Westfield Center shopping mall is without a doubt one of the least known and most secret of all San Francisco’s downtown open spaces. It’s a great spot to chill out, have a coffee break with a Peet’s, or take a weight off when shopping the Union Square area. The views aren’t quite spectacular, but the Westfield Rotunda adds a Hitchcockian Dashiell Hammett twist to grittier SOMA. People who visit always leave breathless.
Lilliputian and magical, the 11th-floor rooftop at 1 Kearny, is TCT’s favorite of all San Francisco’s privately owned public spaces. Appointed with modern block wood benches and angular pruned boxwood hedges in concrete planters, the city views are fabulous. Indeed, any way you turn, the scene is like a film set from a forgotten Hollywood backlot. There’s never enough time to truly enjoy the spatial gems setting. It’s a spot for quiet contemplation and a photographer’s delight. A little difficult to find, the entrance is at 23 Geary Street, where an amusing security person will point you in the right direction.