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San Franciso's Pop-Up Hood
Hayes Valley launches a temporary development filled with restaurants and retail shops.
Container housing Smitten Ice Cream shop.
Envelope A+D


Vacant lots in the middle of cities are spurring all kinds of temporary uses, from guerrilla gardens to public art. And one of the most interesting experiments is happening in San Francisco, with a project that is the first of its kind in the US. In the Hayes Valley neighborhood, two blocks at the end of Octavia Boulevard are being transformed into a festive combination dubbed Proxy, a temporary grouping of restaurants, retail shops, and outdoor gathering spaces. The mini-cluster is designed to give way to other permanent developments in a few years.

Designed by Douglas Burnham of Oakland-based Envelope A+D, the businesses are housed within 26 shipping containers, whose steel structures are often favored by architects for their low cost, strength, and portability. The containers will be opened up and reduced to their frames, then fitted with either large glazed openings or left open to the air, said Burnham.  “We’re also insulating them and skinning the interiors with finishes, and some containers have skylights for natural daylighting,” he added.

Containers en route.
[+ Click to enlarge.]

The first establishment to open will be Smitten Ice Cream, which at press time has a scheduled grand opening for mid-April. That facility will include a serving container as well as vessels for food preparation and support infrastructure (power, garbage disposal, etc). In the next months the project will bring outposts of foodie favorites Ritual Roasters, 4505 Meats, and Suppenküche’s Biergarten. The second phase, anticipated to launch in the fall, will include nine retail stalls, also designed by Burnham, with rotating vendors and an art gallery.

Burnham, who was inspired by Berlin’s Platoon—a cultural development made largely of shipping containers—as well as the British avant-garde architecture group Archigram, sees Proxy as a physical representation of the experience of surfing the Web.

“It’s the idea of a flexible machine that is operating at the pace of the Internet, where you have simple frames but the content is always different,” he said. The architect broached the idea with the city after winning a bid to build market-rate housing further down on Octavia Boulevard. The creative endeavor is financed in part by a client of Burnham’s (who prefers to remain anonymous), who is funding some of the infrastructure; each vendor is paying for the build-out of their containers and a percentage of the rent for the lots.

For the city, the project is a chance to tinker with their vision for Octavia Boulevard. The two lots, comprising about 18,000 square feet, are next to the park at the foot of the street, Hayes Green, and segue into the Hayes Valley business district.

“This project mimics the ground-level retail that the area’s future housing developments will have—it adds the vibrancy that those businesses would bring to the neighborhood and helps us get through this interim period,” said Rich Hillis, deputy director in the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development. The process, Hillis added, “will give us a better sense of what should be there; instead of traditional retail space, we may end up with more of a marketplace.” Three other lots along Octavia have been transformed into urban farms, growing food and development ideas for the city.

Lydia Lee