Aug. 5, 2011

Rich Hillis

Let’s start by introducing your department and what you guys deal with at the city.

We work on larger scale land-use projects in the city, that cross department’s roles and responsibilities. Octavia Street being kind of an interesting case because it wasn’t just building a roof, it was actually negotiating this deal with CalTrans and all the land north of Market Street that the 101 Central Freeway used to sit on. It went back and forth with voter approval both ways; bring the freeway back, don’t bring the freeway back, build a boulevard, cross Market Street with the freeway and touch down on 8th Street, or do what we eventually did. It was a contentious ten-year debate.

And the freeway structure had partly collapsed or had been compromised in the ’89 earthquake, too?

It never actually fell, it wasn’t stable so they knocked it down. The part between Oak and Fell Streets stayed, and they needed figure out what to do with the rest of it—rebuild it and stabilize it, or tear it down and build a boulevard. But what came was a deal with CalTrans at a state-level: to get the land north of Market Street linked in with our office. CalTrans became responsible for south of Market, and we became responsible for everything north of Market.

Was CalTrans really interested in getting a freeway in there?

Well, their mission is to get the cars around the city, so they’re not necessarily in the business of tearing them down.

I’m just curious about the process for setting up these kinds of plans: how does the Office of Economic Development change when a new Mayor gets elected?

It’s an interesting department because we work closely with the Mayor. So, although we aren’t technically an office directly inside the Mayor’s Office we work very closely with them on planning stuff—anything from Treasure Island, to the shipyards, to priority port projects. We serve the Mayor…the Mayor set the policy goals for Octavia; to take the excess parcels that we had from CalTrans and use them for affordable housing. The big goal was building 2,000 units of housing, with half for affordable housing. The Mayor made that a goal and then we went out and implemented that. With members of the community, we decided Octavia would also be a good place to showcase how more modern design can work within the city – this modern boulevard with the old freeway torn down, in the center of this neighborhood as creating a new system for development.

Obviously the idea of proxy could be replicated across the city or in different cities, but what about Hayes Valley was especially conducive to making this happen?

We have a long history with the people of Hayes Valley in implementing this big change. We developed a good working relationship with this community—we love their ideas and they trust what we are doing. Proxy was already being well received because it was taking a vacant lot and turning it into something that really added to the neighborhood and to the commercial quarter. I think this ultimately worked and we were able to do it quickly because of our existing relationship with the area.

In dealing with the issues of the freeway from before…

And planning what was going to be on that boulevard. We got a lot of great ideas from the community in Hayes Valley—they’re focused and forward-thinking and want to see things happening in the neighborhood. In a lot of ways we acted as the implementers, but we also acted as fostering those ideas. The “reuse” notion for the parcels [of land] came out of concession city-wide, and then there was an article by John King [of the San Francisco Chronicle] at one point which posed the question “what’s the city going to do with all of this vacant land?”

How do you think the economy has steered the ideas of this project? The “temporary” focus came after the recession…

We hit a big dip in the housing market and we all recognized it was going to be a while before anything happened. So we could sit and wait, and park cars on those lots, or we do something like proxy.There’s always land that people don’t use, or people who are waiting for some other use, so it could work really anytime. But certainly in the downturn, property owners tend to wait for things to recover, so the transitory nature of this project is instantly something more viable.

I’m really interested in your perspective on proxy’s exit strategy..the idea that something commercial is ending not because it wasn’t doing well. There’s that arc that happens in business where …it declines and finally goes out of business. And then it just leaves an undetermined level of blight, like parts of mid-Market Street. How does that idea of leaving on an up-note transform that model?

That was the big issue in doing all this; people have a lot of issues when it comes to new uses. Even a parking lot—people get used to what’s been on there, people benefited from parking there and don’t want to see it go. I think we’re going to have the same issue when we have the next step. It’s wildly successfully right now, people are in lines waiting to get ice cream, so there will be issues when we have to finally be like, time to go. So we have to think early, maybe a year or so ahead of time. The good thing is that maybe then someone like Robyn [owner, Smitten Ice Cream] is ready to move from a temporary space to a more permanent space somewhere in the city. We’re also looking at building uses in to the eventual permanent project—in the original iteration of the design competition for parcel K—the first level was going to become an open market place. I think something like proxy helps to further develop innovative ideas like that.

So maybe we should look at those concepts of a successful venture, from the point of view of city regulation. When you look at this matrix of different businesses, or artists, or a designer like Envelope A+D, it’s a very informal success that the city is hoping to generate; essentially what people do on Saturdays. And yet, the nature of government is sort of a very formal process. Do you see limitations in making one thing happen with the other?

Our office has a bit more flexibility maybe because we’re in charge of economic development so what that looks like could be anything. It could be anything from art in storefronts on Market Street, or the Outside Lands Festival, to a park, to proxy. We have the benefit of not being that department where paper comes in and we have to box it in; we have a broader mission.When we pushed the freeway back down to south of Market Street, we got a lot of people saying, Hayes Valley looks great, a beautiful boulevard, a park, so now what about us? Now we’ve got the freeway, cars, trash, and homeless, so what are you going to do for us? But they were actually great, now we’re building a skate-park underneath the freeway, though it’s taking a while. And then where McCoppin dead-ends into the freeway there’s an off-the-grid food cart thing every Saturday, which we kind of want to make permanent and make a place where people can sit. The [SFprize:2005] design competition [for housing on the vacant Octavia lots], which was designing a couple of parcels and then going back, was definitely an intentional part of the process. We didn’t want to just spring this building style that doesn’t really look like what’s around it on somebody. Having different shots at it, having more of a discussion between the community and stakeholders about how this kind of innovative design can work and fit in. It may have been a different kind of story if we …had just all of a sudden put some containers down there.

It seems like a lot of what gets talked about is how this squeezes around different regulatory elements. proxy isn’t festival-model, and it’s not a permanent construct, so how does this project change the way people categorize things?

We run into that problem a lot. Anything from food trucks to when the Peter Pan production was downtown with the big tent, and even Outside Lands, too, you don’t go down to DBI and get a permit over the counter for those things. But, we’d be wasting our time going back to DBI to figure out how to change the code to make this easier. Because next time we have a vacant lot we don’t want to go in and duplicate exactly what’s been done here, we want to do something new and creative again and that won’t fit in whatever we might amend in the building code. So we have to find the right people who embrace these things and figure out how to work with people so projects like this can happen.

How do you think technology has helped or hampered that conversation between the public and the city government?

I think where technology has helped a lot is with a “street blog,” like Curbed, which really focuses on architecture, planning and development. Whereas, you used to get that one article in the Chronicle, now it’s all becoming way more participatory. Everyone can comment on the story. Something like proxy gets so much attention now, and attention from other cities.

Have you gotten a lot of that, internally in that world from other cities? It’s great to hear about that exchange, and we are aware of other places that have similar ideas…

Yeah! Portland’s has a skate-park under the freeway, too. We love good ideas! We’re always interested in good ideas.

Interview by envelope a+d and originally appeared in the zine ON SITE IN THE CITY.