San Francisco Designing Public Amenities in Empty Lots

envelope_AD_octavia_KL.gifArchitectural rendering of two parcels adjacent to Patricia's Green in Hayes Valley, one of which is currently vacant and the other a parking lot. The project, called "proxy," would be developed for two to three years in space that will eventually be housing. Images: Envelope Architecture and Design.

At a forum hosted by the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) yesterday, panelists representing landscape architecture firms and Mayor Gavin Newsom's Office of Economic and Workforce Development (MOEWD) outlined several projects they are designing to utilize stalled development plots for interim green space and community benefit.

John King, architecture columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and moderator for the panel, explained that his interest in the issue arose when he repeatedly passed a vacant lot last year on Mission Street downtown and witnessed construction stalled; asphalt was ripped up but left to sit, and nothing followed.

"Is there something else we can do with cleared lots and development?" King asked the audience at SPUR.

At several "pizza roundtables" last year at the Chronicle offices, King explained that architects, community groups, developers and city personnel began developing best-case ideas for interim use of vacant lots, including a number of proposals by the panelists at the forum.

"When you're talking about empty lots in cities, you're talking about something that recurs," said Sarah Kuehl, a panelist and Partner at PWP Landscape Architecture in Berkeley. Of empty lots, she said, "They tend to develop a sense of loss, of development that wasn't."

Several developers waiting to secure financing for projects in the city were eager to activate their lots and encouraged landscape architects like Rebar, an art and architecture collective known for Park(ing) Day and the Showplace Triangle Pavement to Parks Plaza, to develop interim uses on their properties.

"'Interim use' describes taking advantage of a gap in the cycle of utilization," said Rebar's John Bela of the projects they are designing, including a pollinator garden at 45 Lansing Street and a street tree nursery at 399 Folsom Street. Bela pointed to the Folsom Street project in particular because of the proposed street-tree nursery Rebar will develop with Friends of the Urban Forest, which would produce trees for use along sidewalks throughout San Francisco.

"It's the idea of using this temporary vacancy and activating it with productive uses," said Bela, explaining that interim spaces would also serve to test new ideas before making a significant investment in the site or in a program. "We're testing programs that can take advantage of these fallow lands."

Both Rebar and another panelist, Douglas Burnham of Envelope Architecture and Design, have been working on multiple lots in Hayes Valley that were opened up when the Central Freeway was removed and Octavia Boulevard was redesigned.

Hayes_Valley_lots.gifOverhead view of the two parcels in Hayes Valley where Envelope Architecture and Design plans to construct interim public amenities.

Burnham elaborated on the process his firm has used to envision the possible interim use of two plots of land adjacent to Patricia's Green, at Octavia Boulevard and Hayes Street, one of which is empty and the other a parking lot.

Burnham listed a number of criteria his firm is considering for the project, dubbed "proxy," including entertainment (movie nights, temporary art space,) retail (pop-up stores, food carts and trucks,) transportation (add bike racks, preserve some Zipcar parking,) and public amenities (bathrooms, wifi, recycling.) Burnham also proposed using the lots for community space, so groups like the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association could meet in a more visible location.

In order to establish a framework for promoting these interim use projects around the city, the MOEWD's Michael Yarne said the city is exploring legislation to create Green Development Agreements (GDA). GDAs are binding contracts between the city and a developer that would "trade greater security and flexibility to a private land owner who has a project that has been stalled in exchange for some greater public benefits, significant investment in exciting interim uses," said Yarne.

"We've seen all these inspiring projects and designs," said Yarne, "How can we make this happen in a broader context?"

The GDA would be important leverage for developers, who might otherwise avoid interim uses for fear of the negative publicity that can result if the temporary use becomes so popular the community fights its removal. The "People's Park Paradox," according to Yarne, would then be averted and developers would have financial incentive to create public amenities.

Yarne and the MOEWD plan to introduce two ordinances in April that would establish GDAs generally and a pilot GDA at 399 Folsom Street, the tree nursery.

In the question and answer period, a member of the audience said that the Palace of Fine Arts was originally set up as space for a temporary exhibition and now it is a San Francisco icon. Asked how the city would reconcile the public's love of the temporary spaces with the development that would replace it, Yarne acknowledged it was a dilemma.

"There would be all sorts of land all over the city that we could imagine amazing things in, but we have always these countervailing needs and desires," said Yarne. Without incentive to use the empty lots, the public wouldn't have the opportunity to explore the interim uses. "It's really a classic trade-off," he said.

sml_octaviakl3.gifAnother view of "proxy" at Patricia's Green in Hayes Valley.