How To Turn A Vacant Lot Into A Thriving Cultural Destination

Two words: Beer garden. Okay, and some other stuff, too.

How To Turn A Vacant Lot Into A Thriving Cultural Destination

It goes without saying that our provisional economy has left gaping holes in cities all over the country. Construction sites that once rung with the sound of jackhammers fell eerily silent after the financial crash and never cranked back up again.


Hayes Valley is no exception. A freeway that sliced through the heart of this slowly gentrifying San Francisco neighborhood was demolished several years after being damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, leaving vacant lots ripe for development. Then, the economy soured and buildings never materialized. It might’ve been years before a sunnier real estate market brought the voids to life, if not for architect Douglas Burnham.

Burnham, of Oakland-based Envelope A+D, initiated a proposal to turn a pair of empty lots on Octavia Street into an ad-hoc cultural destination. Envisioned as a restaurant hub/art gallery/entertainment venue/beer garden squeezed into shipping containers, Proxy was designed as an impermanent fix to an impermanent problem, namely that eventually the sites will be developed. But they don’t need to sit empty in the meantime.

The incredible thing is that Burnham’s actually making it happen. As he tells Co.Design, Proxy’s already got an ice cream shop, a coffee place, and a museum of craft and design. The Suppenkuche Biergarten opens in October.

How did he finagle it? It helps that before the crash, he’d already won rights to develop property on Octavia. Architect magazine reports:

In one of his meetings with the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development last year [in 2009], Burnham was asked to consider a temporary use for his or any of the other Octavia lots. “Our first thought was, ‘That’s intriguing; they’re asking us for free work,'” recalls Burnham. “But it got us hypothesizing about potential programs, like an outdoor cinema, pop-up shops, food stands, gardens, urban living rooms with movable furniture, and so on.”

He proposed a mixed-use intervention on two larger lots, around the corner from his own and closer to a commercial area, which the Mayor’s Office readily endorsed and ushered through zoning approval.

He leases the property from the city. Vendors, in turn, pay a low monthly rent. The idea’s to transition the site into permanent housing in a few years when (fingers crossed) the economy bounces back. “In many ways, the timeline is perfect,” he told Architect, “because three to four years is about the amount of time it takes for people to get tired of something.”

[Here and above: Future Cities Lab’s installation “Trilux” at the pop-up for the Museum of Craft and Design]

Proxy is one of eight projects included in Architecture of Consequence: San Francisco, an exhibit about architecture and social change at AIA San Francisco | Center for Architecture + Design Gallery. More Co.Design coverage of the show here.

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.