Nov. 1, 2012

Douglas Burnham

“We think that a thoughtful insertion of compelling temporary uses can be an effective strategy to bring vibrancy to languishing parts of the city. There’s nothing trendy or faddish about this.”

DOUGLAS BURNHAM, Founder & Principal of envelope a+d

Flexible Urbanism: Proxy—two blocks of architectural impermanence, designed by Envelope A+D—is a vibrant focal point for commerce and community in the city’s bohemian and diverse Hayes Valley neighborhood.

November 2012

Bay Area residents and tourists gather there to eat fresh food, drink at the Biergarten, enjoy rotating cultural programs, buy the work of local artisans, and watch movies in a covered event space. Part city-wide festival, part neighborhood block party, Proxy, as the temporary venue is called, is an unconventional collection of portable pods and renovated shipping containers spanning two blocks in the Hayes Valley section of San Francisco. Proxy opened in 2011 as a temporary, full-scale experiment in culture and commerce, conceived to celebrate the unexpected vitality inherent in its impermanence. The project is now in phase two of a four-phase, three-year life cycle.

Proxy (also known as ProxySF) gets pegged in the media as an example of “pop-up commerce”—a phenomenon in which retailers acquire short-term leases on vacant storefronts or parking lots and sell their wares, often in a frenzy of media hype, for a few days or even a few hours. “We specifically don’t use the word ‘pop-up,’ because it doesn’t really mean anything to us anymore,” explains Douglas Burnham, founder of the Berkeley-based architecture firm Envelope A+D, which designed, fabricated, and now operates Proxy. “We think that a thoughtful insertion of compelling temporary uses can be an effective strategy to bring vibrancy to languishing parts of the city. There’s nothing trendy or faddish about this.”

It all started with a natural disaster. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake irreparably damaged the elevated Central Freeway running through Hayes Valley. After it was demolished a decade later, tears in Hayes Valley’s urban fabric were suddenly visible in the bleak appearance of vacant lots. With a recession halting development, the tears became open wounds. Without new construction to rejuvenate the neighborhood, the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development sought entrepreneurs to lease these unused spaces for temporary uses until they could be sold in a better economy. The theory was that these so-called placeholders would generate retail and cultural activities, which, in turn, would rejuvenate the neighborhood.

Envelope A+D responded to the city’s request for proposals with “a programmatic matrix of possible temporary uses, which we refined through meetings with the city, neighborhood, and potential stakeholders,” says Burnham. The firm won the commission, but there were pros and cons to Burnham’s ambitious proposal. His biggest asset turned out to be the neighborhood itself. As a local, he knew that Hayes Valley was home to significant numbers of architects, planners, and city officials. He knew they had advocated replacing the demolished freeway with a denser urban fabric, which could be achieved by introducing a rigorous brand of Modernist design. “Because of the damage that the freeway did to the neighborhood, Hayes Valley is a rougher, more open canvas than most neighborhoods,” describes Burnham, and thus “uniquely positioned for a project like Proxy.”

The biggest con was major and could have easily erased all that goodwill. Not only did the city offer no funding, grants, or loans, it would also charge rent for the land Proxy occupied. However, the mayor’s office was extremely supportive in other ways, particularly by streamlining the permissions process to get the project moving. Still, the financial risk for the duration of Proxy was and continues to be assumed by Envelope A+D. Burnham has been admirably creative in raising capital. First he tapped into his firm’s cash reserves, accumulated over two decades. Then he raised money for infrastructure improvements through loans from individuals. He convinced vendors and content providers to pay for the design and fabrication of their own venues and to pay rent. Finally, he found philanthropists for the art components, and corporate donations for frameworks and ongoing events.

With risk comes control, fortunately. “We select all of the vendors and design all of the components. A large part of what we do is the curation of the ‘content’ vendors [rotating concessions] of the project,” says Burnham. “We are looking for people who have passion about what they are doing and are dedicated to a high-quality product. The right mix of vendors is critical to the project’s success.”

The right mix is critical to environmental responsibility, too. In this case, sustainability is measured not in metrics but in collective resolve. Beyond meeting the energy-performance requirements of the California Building Code, Proxy incorporates several best practices for sustainability. For instance, the “rooted” vendors (continuous concessions) own their own containers, which are primarily glass and steel, modular, and durable. They will take them away at lease end and reuse or recycle the elements. Envelope A+D will remove those units it owns. Infrastructure upgrades will be bequeathed to the next inhabitants. There will also be public displays of sustainability throughout Proxy’s duration, including a photovoltaic-array demonstration for on-site power generation.

The architects designed the elements to minimize energy consumption. The units are insulated, but not heated. “We were able to do this only as a result of negotiations with San Francisco building officials,” Burnham explains. “We argued that our uses are more like those of state-fair vendors than stores or restaurants, as both serve directly to the exterior.” Burnham acknowledges that the no-heat option is made possible by the Bay Area’s year-round moderate climate. He believes this demonstrates that there is a much wider range of human comfort than convention acknowledges. As Proxy is, after all, an experiment, he will continue to investigate more ways to conserve energy by rethinking our assumptions about comfort.

Burnham reaches beyond environmental diligence to emphasize the social sustainability that Proxy offers. He sees his experiment as a new model for urban development by temporarily transforming underused, but high-value, areas into thriving cultural experiences. He calls this “flexible urbanism.” “If we think about the underused spaces of the city as having the potential to sponsor access to products, services, or amenities that are not readily available, we are working toward more sustainable neighborhoods,” he argues. Of course, he acknowledges that the uniqueness of San Francisco and its embrace of outdoor green markets, street fairs, and food trucks is conducive to this model. “On another site, in a different neighborhood or in a different city, the project would be quite different. Though Proxy started as a project with a specific site, we quickly began to see it as a strategy that has implications far beyond that of a one-off project,” he says. To that end, Burnham is converting Proxy to a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in order to deploy the strategy as a mechanism for urban change.

By Sara Hart