Transbay Center trims flash to save cash

San Francisco’s new Transbay Transit Center in SOMA has barely started taking shape, and yet we may already be looking at a whole new design concept.

With construction costs going through the fancy glass roof, the project heralded as the “Grand Central Station of the West” on First and Mission streets is looking for a makeunder that’ll save it a pretty penny.

The latest proposal replaces the building’s original glass skin for a perforated aluminum material that will cloak the structure’s bulbous form. The change would shave $17 million from the $1.69 billion estimated budget — for its first phase.

Architects said the new structure will honor the design goals of the original concept: Make a huge building that appears light and airy.

Fred Clarke, co-founder of Pelli Clarke Pelli, the firm that’s designing a 1,070-foot tower to accompany the transit center, agreed:

“This is a dramatic change in material, but the philosophical change is not enormous. I think it is equally handsome.”

According to Clarke, the perforated holes in the metal will have a dappled look, with some holes large enough to fit a hand through:

“We want a wrapping that has body and weight, but would still be transparent.”

The project’s board of directors must still approve of the change at its March 25 meeting.

Construction for the transit center broke ground in December 2010, and is expected to be finished in 2017. The center, which stretches three blocks from Second and Beale streets, will be a hub for 11 transit systems and bring in retail businesses, affordable housing and a new 5.4 acre park.