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Proxy – Creative enterprise for re-thinking public space

Fri, 30 Sep 2016 20:44:00
4.5 / 5 (4 Votes)
Article by:
Laurie MacDougall
Proxy 2011, Ben Eine Mural, Future Cities Lab Trilux Pavilion, Museum of Craft and Design. Photo courtesy of Yosh Asato, Proxy.
Proxy is a temporary 2-block project in the heart of Hayes Valley — a flexible environment of food, art, culture, and retail, housed within renovated shipping containers. Yes, shipping containers.

For decades, the site was a derelict asphalt parking lot surrounded by a chain-link fence. Now it is a vibrant changing environment celebrating experimentation and new ideas — a commons for the neighborhood and visitors to gather, eat, play and schmooze.
   
The shipping containers are the clue that, most amazing of all, none of it is meant to last.
   
The lots occupied by proxy are earmarked by the city to become affordable housing units. However, in the meantime the space includes several thriving food and retail businesses and an open outdoor theater providing innovative programming that’s free and open to the public.
   
This lab of ideas for making the most of underutilized but high-value space in the midst of a city is being watched by people who think about, and care about, the role of public space in enriching neighborhood life within San Francisco, and in cities around the globe.

What does proxy do?
   
Proxy began in 2010, and it is intended to disappear in 2020. It emerged slowly, innovation by innovation, and in 2016, it holds four different ideas within its idiocynratic embrace:
  
 Proxy EVENT/PLAY
   
The open space holds many possibilities for public use. At the north end is the outdoor Walk-in Theater, with state-of-the-art screen and sound capabilities; an outdoor fitness structure in frequent use by trainers and their clients; and a public plaza that can be transformed for cultural events, or provide seating for meeting neighbors, reading, or enjoying the lively street scene.
   
Proxy EAT
   
The open space also provides room for a combination of diverse eateries and rotating selection of food trucks. Currently housed in shipping containers are Smitten Ice Cream — a success story all its own — Ritual Coffee, a juice bar, and the al fresco Biergarten, a wildly successful spin-off of the popular Hayes Valley institution, Suppenkuche.
  
Proxy ART
  
A moveable feast of curated art installations, all temporary, inside shipping containers or tents.
  
Proxy STOREFRONT
  
Small-scale pop-ups contain new and unique offerings, sometimes in gift trucks (think food truck, only with presents on offer instead of edibles), sometimes in shipping containers. City Bikes, a bike rental operation and one of proxy’s earliest vendors, has moved into larger and larger shipping containers as the business has quintupled since first setting up in 2011. Presently the most ambitious retail space is Aether, high-end clothing in a structure composed of three stacked shipping containers.

How does this temporary idea work as a business model?
   
From the beginning, proxy’s brainstorm was to create a lab for micro-enterprise operations, enabling new businesses to start in a tiny footprint. It’s affordable for start-ups, and the location is superb. The proxy model lowers the economic barriers to entry, making it possible for new small businesses to participate and, as has happened with proxy’s tenants, grow in a sustainable way.
   
The poster child for the potential of this entrepreneurial approach is proxy’s first vendor, Smitten Ice Cream.
   
Smitten’s owner had devised a method for using liquid nitrogen to make astonishingly smooth and tasty ice cream on the spot, and had been operating at flea markets out of a red Radio Flyer Wagon prior to joining the proxy experiment. She opened for business in early 2011 in a re-purposed shipping container. Only 5 years later, Smitten Ice Cream has expanded from the Radio Flyer wagon to include brick and mortar sites in Pacific Heights, Marina, Lafayette, Rockridge, Los Altos and El Segundo in southern California. World domination appears to be on the horizon.
   
Overall, the idea has proven to be pure gold. Provide small, flexible and temporary start-up space as a low-risk business opportunity on well-located scraps of land, presently lying fallow, undeveloped, and watch a vibrant commons emerge, one that promotes community, creates jobs, and contributes to the civility of the neighborhood.

How did proxy come into being?
  
In 2010, in the midst of a severe economic downturn, San Francisco’s Mayor’s Office requested proposals for temporary uses on the last City-owned vacant lots remaining after the earthquake-damaged Central Freeway was removed in the late 1980s. The creation of Octavia Boulevard as a thoroughfare with a public park, Patricia’s Green, at its northern end, catalyzed the gradual development along the Octavia corridor, leaving only a few snippets of land along the east side of Octavia undeveloped.
   
City planners imagined there might be temporary uses for the two largest parcels, across from Patricia’s Green, fronting directly on Hayes Street, while awaiting funding for the ultimate end envisioned for the space — affordable housing. The original timeframe for this project was to be three years. However, because the city has had difficulty securing the funding necessary for the affordable housing project, coupled with the amazing success of proxy, the original lease has been extended again — now due to expire in 2020, when proxy will cease to exist.
   
The task was formidable, but a visionary young architect named Douglas Burnham, head of a wildly creative but undercapitalized young architectural firm called Envelope a+d took on the challenge to design and create temporary structures in a way that would produce enough revenue to make it viable. They won the contract, and almost immediately the timeframe had to be extended as it took almost a year to secure the permits to proceed. According to Burnham, “the building department didn’t know what to do with us. It was a temporary project, but we had to meet the same regulations they applied to permanent infrastructures.” Burnham and his associates sought out prospective vendors and developed design strategies that utilized low-cost easily-deployable modules, principally shipping containers, and built coalitions with neighborhood groups, local business owners and city officials.
  
Burnham said, “We got excited about the possibility of creating a new model for urban development, a ‘flexible urbanism’ that can temporarily transform underused by high-value urban areas into thriving cultural spaces that bring economic vitality to otherwise fallow sites. As a model it could be applied to other sites in San Francisco, or to other cities. This larger sense of the potential of the project beyond this site made proxy a thoughtfully conceived full-scale urban experiment.”

What about the cultural part of the equation?
   
While ways had to be found to make operating the space financially viable, it was never viewed by Burnham and his associates as a purely commercial endeavor. Building community spirit through well-designed public space is his goal, so in addition to the economic development aspects of proxy, from the beginning Burnham and his associates envisioned proxy as a vibrant public space, where cultural, commerce and community converge.
  
The form this took was to create a nonprofit to curate interesting and unusual cultural events in the space. To accomplish this, the nonprofit, called Here For Now, launched a public fundraising campaign to build the Walk-In Theater. The idea was to use minimal means to create a lively cultural place without walls. The screen is 20 feet by 49 feet, and audio and visual capacities are state-of-the art. The public space seats up to 450 people on blankets and folding chairs. Families and picnics are welcome.
   
Programming is curated by Here For Now, using collaborations with larger cultural institutions eager to step outside their walls to secure new audiences. Program collaborators include S.F. Jazz, the S.F. Film Festival, and The Exploratorium and, for the second year in a row, Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals.
  
In fact, you can take advantage of a great opportunity to have the proxy experience this month. The pop-up proxy Fall Film Festival is back for the second year, starting September 23 and running for five Friday evenings in a row, ending on the 21st of October. The Film Festival will feature Indie films fresh from the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals, centering around the theme of celebrating the different voices of America in this election year.

What does the future hold?
   
Don’t wait too long to visit proxy in the heart of Hayes Valley, because after 2020 it will be gone forever.
   
But the larger picture for this type of “flexible urbanism” is bright. Looking ahead, economic uncertainly looms across the globe. Projects such as proxy offer cities a strategy for remaining not only economically viable, but relevant, able to adapt to the rapid changes being propelled by contemporary culture. As visionary Donald Burnham puts it, “These experiments require designers, developers, philanthropists and city agencies to operate beyond a bottom-line mode of thinking and consider the creation of places of quality and diversity within the city as a higher calling. This ethic of ‘flexible urbanism’ extends beyond the deployment of vendors in mobile containers to urge thinking about the city as a vibrant, living construct that is constantly in the process of becoming.”

 
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