Kaid Benfield Archive


Recession spurs creative temporary uses of urban lots

Kaid Benfield

Posted September 21, 2009 at 2:02PM

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  design for San Francisco's Proxy project (by: envelope a+d)

One of the casualties of the recession has been that some decent urban development, the kind that we want to buttress cities and support more environmentally benign living patterns, has been put on hold.  So empty lots remain vacant and, in some cases, lots were cleared before the recession but now sit vacant, as there was enough money to do the demolition and clearing, but not enough to do the rebuilding.

That's the bad news.  The good news is that communities are getting more creative about temporary uses for these city spaces while they remain idle. 

location of Proxy project (by: envelope a+d)The best proposal I have seen is in San Francisco, where the city owns twelve lots it had slated for redevelopment with housing along Octavia Boulevard.  John King writes in the San Francisco Chronicle:

"However, the market-rate developers awarded the first batch of sites can't get construction loans - so there's an effort to bring life to several parcels for at least three years, both as a hedge against vandalism and as an investment in neighborhood vitality . . .

"One concept involves two lots framed on the north by Hayes Street and on the west by a small park marking the boulevard's end.

"There, Oakland architect Douglas Burnham proposes a compound of portable structures measuring 9 by 20 feet. Some would contain incubator retail spaces; others could be bundled to hold offshoots of local restaurants. There'd be communal tables and an outdoor movie screen.

"The city would lease the lots to Burnham and his investors for three years; they in turn would erect the containers and rent them out. Housing would remain the sites' ultimate use.

"Burnham dubs his concept 'Proxy,' and has no problem with the time frame: 'In a way it's perfect for our culture. Three years is about how long people are really into something. Then it starts to get tired.'"

design for San Francisco's Proxy project (by: envelope a+d)The design, which includes some coverings and temporary supports to knit the whole project together, looks fantastic.  The architects' web site notes that the project embraces "an ethic of sustainability and reuse. The southern face of the L site will sponsor a demonstration photovoltaic array for on-site power generation. A water collection will be used for irrigation of on-site plantings and the existing asphalt surface will be partially removed to allow for pervious paving in common areas. Retail pods and frames will be re-used or recycled after this inhabitation. Most other components will be rented or recycled after proxy is dismantled."  There's a provocative description here, along with links to lots more images.