Public streets account for as much as a third of land in a city. They have often been viewed as more of a domain for cars rather than people, sadly. But progressive cities around the world are repurposing these spaces into places for people, conversation, food and play. Some examples that we’ve written about before are New York City’s inspiring High Line and Times Square Plazas (that we hope stay that way).
Another example located just near our PUBLIC Hayes Valley Shop is PROXY, an urban pop-up space that combines retail, food, art installations and outdoor events, in a plot of land that till PROXY was a parking lot and 20 years prior engulfed under the shadow of the Central Freeway.
We interview Douglas Burnham, founder of envelope A+D the design group that envisioned PROXY to learn more about how public spaces can be transformed into a dynamic places for interaction.
PUBLIC: The importance of reclaiming public space as walkable, livable and community-based are some of the founding principles of PUBLIC. Your team takes a similar approach with your projects—using architecture to create an immersive environment that transforms people’s experience with a space. Our flagship store in Hayes Valley is nearby one such of your projects, PROXY. Please talk to us about the PROXY project.
DOUGLAS: PROXY is a temporary two-block project located on lots that were left vacant after the removal of the 101 Central Freeway. In 2010, we responded to a request from the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development (OEWD) for interim uses on the Octavia Boulevard vacant lots. However, as we kept getting enthusiastic green lights from the city and the neighborhood, we quickly realized that we would need to figure out a way to make PROXY a financially viable project before we got carried away with soaring plans removed from reality.
People often don’t realize that while the space is publicly accessible, the project is privately funded and managed by our office. We act as the developer, fundraiser and steward of the two lots. We’ve spent the last several years taking enormous risks and grinding away to resolve issues that are inherent to experimenting live in the city without a safety net. It’s been an incredibly challenging and rewarding experience for the entire office.
In proposing the project, our goal was to create a concentrated, constantly changing experience of both culture and commerce in a zone that was previously invisible—a perceptual void—in peoples’ experiences. PROXY was conceived as a placeholder for a more permanent development—these lots will eventually be built with both market rate and below market rate housing. Our lease on the larger lot runs through 2020 and we are in the process of extending the lease end date through 2020 on the smaller Biergarten site as well.
PROXY has established an emerging model of urban planning that demonstrates how recasting seemingly insignificant, underused urban spaces using temporary interventions can quickly and effectively transform portions of the city into thriving centers of ingenuity and fun. Though Hayes Valley was in the midst of a renaissance that had begun in the early 1990s with the neighbor-led push to remove the freeway, PROXY has helped to reinvigorate the neighborhood after the long economic downturn that lingered after the 2008 Stock Market crash.
Everything we do at PROXY is guided by our motto “HERE FOR NOW”. The world is always changing, so a healthy city needs to be able to adapt quickly and smartly to the circumstances at hand. The motto speaks to our goals for inhabiting the city as residents and is a call to action. By creating a vibrant mix of culture and commerce, we hope to encourage engagement with the city and the present moment in a heightened way.
On the commerce side, one important aspect of PROXY is its role as an incubator of micro-enterprise. Aether, Smitten, Biergarten, Basic Training, and SOSF all had their first physical brick-and-mortar (or steel-and-glass) spaces here and have really grown their businesses out of their initial presence at PROXY. Ritual and JuiceShop have also benefitted from the pedestrian-friendly open-air experience that PROXY has created. The vendors at PROXY have come to be our cohorts in an urban experiment of temporary activation. They have taken risks alongside us in making a go of it in small spaces on a limited timeline.
On the culture side, we have had many different art installations at PROXY, from the now-concealed “BRIGHTERFASTER” mural by Ben Eine, to installations by the Museum of Craft and Design and the Hayes Valley Arts Coalition. Our next foray into cultural production at PROXY is the realization of an outdoor movie and live music venue in the asphalt plaza area at the heart of PROXY. We ran a Kickstarter campaign this summer to raise enough money to complete the movie screen and purchase an outdoor-rated digital projector and sound system. We didn’t end up making our goal—and therefore didn’t get the pledges—but the campaign generated a significant amount of interest in the project and we were able to harvest enough donations to complete the screen (which is underway right now).
Ever the optimists, we are planning to do a scrappier version of a Fall Film Festival on the first four Fridays in October. The PROXY walk-in movie theater will be a place where everyone will be able to share in the experience of watching a movie with their neighbors in the open air. We’re still looking for donations — all of which our tax deductible through our 501c3 nonprofit HERE FOR NOW. (Go to HEREFORNOWsf.org to support our efforts to bring free outdoor movies to San Francisco!)
PUBLIC: What are some of your favorite, inspiring examples of reinterpreted public spaces? (Like the High Line in NYC, for example.)
DOUGLAS: The High Line, of course, is the premiere example that everyone knows about. Yet, on my recent vacation I was lucky to be able to visit Superkilen—a new linear park in Copenhagen (being made famous enough from the iPhone photo of the glorious ribbons of white lines on asphalt that cover a portion of the park). Superkilen is really great because it operates right at street level and has amenities that are for the people that live right there — places to play chess, informally gather, play, skate, skateboard, swing and box (yes, there’s a boxing ring!). The design is more “pop” than the High Line and appropriately so as it serves the local residents in their daily lives in an economically diverse section of Copenhagen. There is a high degree of joyful invention that encourages play, social interaction, as well as safe passage through the park.
This kind of community-serving linear park is what we’re hoping to do with our transformation of the waterfront edge at the Hunters Point Shoreline. In NOW_Hunters Point we are transforming the site of a former PG&E power plant using strategies similar to those of PROXY. There, the process of engaging the neighborhood is more robust. Our team is actively prototyping possible interim uses that are tested though events. Working with Studio O, RHAA and John Greenlee & Associates, we are creating a string of several gathering zones for learning, playing and contemplation of the natural beauty on the Bay’s edge. This enhanced public access amenity is part of the transformation of the former power plant site and is taking a narrow existing access zone, widening it to roughly one-hundred feet, and threading a wider Blue-Greenway standard combined bicycle and pedestrian path through an enhanced landscape of grasses, flowers, trees and coastal shrubs. The layered history of inhabitation of the site, including the history of the power plant and its removal initiated through direct action of the Hunters Point residents, will be legible through didactic elements distributed along the path. The goal of the project is to support access to the Hunters Point Shoreline by the residents of Hunters Point as well as being a part of a system of regional open space that encourages the experience of the Bay and celebrates the specific history of the site.
PUBLIC: How can the average person help to support projects that work to make public spaces more livable?
DOUGLAS: Our wider goal for PROXY and for future project is to truly empower people to take a piece of the city, to become a steward of that place and to change it through direct action. Sure, it helps that we are architects doing this work, but we are also inventing so many things beyond our training and standard roles as architects. Because of this, I know that it really just takes passion combined with a vision of how something—your street, a neighborhood park, a vacant lot, a whole sector of the city—can be not just better, but can be something great. Mostly, it just takes knowing that you can make a difference and a certain amount of tenacity.
The guys that came up with the idea for the High Line were just people who cared about something that they saw as a treasure (and that other people, city officials included, saw as a blight to be erased). They applied the skills that they had, in both persuasion and finance, to rally their neighborhood behind their vision for a raised linear park 40 feet above the street. Their action, their risk, their initiative has literally transformed that sector of New York City into a thriving hub for both residents and tourists. Who would have thought?
We are inspired by citizens who act upon the cities where they live and we hope that our work also inspires people to take their own actions to contribute to the health and vibrancy of the city.