San Francisco Chronicle

S.F.’s Transamerica Pyramid is getting a $250 million redesign, the biggest in its 50-year history

Ronald Li, Mar 22, 2022

A rendering of the new Redwood Park and office building 3 Transamerica.

Foster + Partners

The Transamerica Pyramid is set for a $250 million renovation that will revamp the iconic San Francisco tower’s interior, as well as the area around it.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

A rendering of the renovated lobby of the Transamerica Pyramid.

Foster + Partners

The Transamerica Pyramid is getting the biggest makeover in its 50-year history.

Owner Michael Shvo and his partners have hired world-renowned architect Norman Foster to redesign the iconic tower’s interiors and plan to invest $250 million to renovate the 1972 building and expand its Redwood Park. The owners also plan to roughly double the size of neighboring 545 Sansome St. and add a new facade to create a modern office building at the cost of around $150 million.

The plans amount to not only the largest investment in downtown San Francisco since the pandemic began, but one of the largest building redesigns in the city’s history — and to one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks.

“We want to make this place a focal center of downtown, and make sure people come here not only to work,” said Shvo. “It will not only transform the interior of the building but the landscape and the exterior and bring life to the entire site.”

Tourists and residents often take pictures of the 853-foot Pyramid from afar, but the site itself is sleepy, particularly since the pandemic began. “When you come to the site, there’s not much to do there,” Shvo said. “We want to change that.”

A rendering of the new Mark Twain Street with cherry blossom trees and new shops.

Foster + Partners

Mark Twain Street, now a barren alleyway connected to Redwood Park, would get rows of cherry blossom trees and new shops under the plan. Open space would be expanded around the block. On the ground floor of the Pyramid, Shvo hopes to bring in multiple restaurants, a bookstore and flower shop — all open to the public.

The renovations are expected to take a year to complete. The city has approved a temporary construction barricade, and work is scheduled to begin this week. The expansion of 545 Sansome St. — which is being rebranded 3 Transamerica — to 100,000 square feet of office space would follow and require additional city approvals.

Shvo sees the pandemic as a temporary era, and that people’s reluctance to leave the house can be overcome by making compelling destinations. And he’s bullish on the future of downtown.

“I believe, long-term, San Francisco is one of the most important cities for business in the United States,” Shvo said. “I don’t believe everyone is moving out and I don’t believe everyone is working from home.”

Shvo has partnered with luxury hotel and condo companies like Mandarin Oriental and Four Seasons on other projects, and he’s taking a similar hospitality approach to the workplace.

“I strongly believe the office experience should be at the same level as luxury residential and hospitality,” Shvo said. “In the last two years, we’ve made our homes into our offices, now it’s time to make our offices feel like our homes.”

A rendering of the 48th floor tenants bar and lounge at the Transamerica Pyramid.

Foster + Partners

A vacant 48th floor penthouse space would be turned into a bar and lounge exclusively for office tenants at the cost of $201,836, according to a building permit filed this month that is awaiting city approval. Upper floors would include conference rooms, a spa and gym. Office tenants would be able to order food and beverages to their desks.

Separately, New York’s high-end Core club has leased three bottom floors in the Pyramid to build a luxury, members-only facility with three restaurants and three bars.

Shvo said he ran a design competition with world-renowned architects before selecting Foster, who designed Apple Park, the Bay Area’s most valuable property, and London’s Gherkin Building.

Foster has a history of reimagining prominent historic buildings, including designing a new glass dome atop the Reichstag, Germany’s lower house of parliament. He also designed the Manhattan headquarters of Hearst, owner of The Chronicle, a glassy diagonal grid constructed in 2003 atop a six-story structure built in 1927.

The architect has been expanding his work in San Francisco, designing a 1,066-foot tower proposed on the site of the former PG&E garage that would exceed the height of the Pyramid. Another super-tall tower, Oceanwide Center, is stalled after its Chinese owner’s financial turmoil.

The Pyramid design approach seeks to enhance and reveal the tower’s historic elements. For instance, the current lobby ceiling blocks the building’s lattice-like structure, which Shvo wants to restore.

A rendering of the renovated lobby.

Foster + Partners

Shvo and his partners are only the second owners of the tower, after buying it in 2020 for $650 million from Transamerica Corp.’s parent, Aegon. The group, which includes Germany’s biggest pension fund, Bayerische Versorgungskammer, beat out over 40 other bidders.

“They thought we would be the best steward of their brand,” he said of Aegon.

Aegon had previously proposed redevelopment of 545 Sansome St. but hadn’t received approval. Shvo’s plans will result in the relocation of 37-year-old Vietnamese restaurant Sai’s from the site. The developer is currently assisting the restaurant in finding a space nearby.

Shvo said the prospect of renovations has already paid off, with multiple leases over $100 per square foot annually, some of the highest in the country. Shvo declined to identify the tenants.

“We’re really seeing tenants are willing to pay an almost unlimited premium for quality product,” Shvo said. “Tenants today want top-of-the-line product. They want to be in the best buildings.”