Feb. 18, 2014

Origin Story, Part 3: In Practice: Making PROXY Real

As part of AIA SF’s 2011 Architecture and the City festival titled Architecture of Consequenceenvelope a+d [link to About section that mentions envelope on proxysf.local] published the zine ON SITE IN THE CITY. Made in part to supplement the exhibition, the zine supported the firm’s dialogue with Dutch Firm ZUS about how progressive design and creative problem solving can address many of our most pressing urban issues, from decreased social cohesion and unsustainable food systems to diminishing free time. 

This excerpt originally appeared in ON SITE IN THE CITY as part of “PROXY: An Experiment in Flexible Urbanism” by Douglas Burnham. 

PROXY is being implemented in mostly discrete (but partially overlapping) phases, starting with food, then art, then retail and, finally, event/play. We conceive of the project as continuously being in the process of becoming, of constantly changing and developing new aspects. The reasons for the phased implementation of the project are both conceptual and practical. Conceptually, we are interested in the experiment of a project that is constantly in flux, thwarting the notion that the value of architecture is in its final, rarified, condition (and confounding the question: “When will it be done?”). Practically, we are not only the designers of the project, we are also its developers (though our sense of that word may be closer to “director/producer” than “developer”). Assuming this latter role has presented new challenges as well as unforeseen benefits.

Due to the economic downturn, banks would not touch this project, especially at its outset. Lacking access to conventional forms of financing, we were forced to adopt an innovative approach to funding the project: we tapped into the personal capital that we have developed in our work as architects over the past two decades. Most of the active contributors to the project have come from our clients or from word-of-mouth recommendations made by our clients and contacts. We secured a loan for infrastructure improvements (with generous terms) from a longterm client who is interested in supporting our work, and we convinced the vendors and content providers to fund the design and fabrication of their own components within the project. Upcoming phases of the project draw upon both pure philanthropy for the art component and corporate sponsorship of the frameworks and programming for retail and events. Although arduous and time-consuming to assemble, these various sources of funding have broadened the reach and acceptance of the project beyond the usual suspects to include artists and artisans, philanthropists and new business owners.

The process of realizing PROXY required not only creative funding strategies but strong relationships fostered by open communication with and between the city agencies that promote economic development and regulate the built environment. The fact that this project is on city-owned land and was initiated in response to a request for proposals from the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development was critical to its actualization. However, because the project falls between so many building, health and utility company definitions, nearly every turn had a roadblock that had to be cleared through intense discussion and clarification. For example, the Building Code deems “temporary” as ninety days. Thus, under the Building Code, proxy  is treated as “permanent” and must meet the full criteria for structures that are meant to last for decades (if not centuries).

On the other hand, the utility company, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), defines “temporary” as anything in existence less than five years, the hitch being that “temporary” projects have to pay for the cost of their utility connections up-front, whereas PG&E automatically amortizes the cost of their power connections over decades for “permanent” projects. Since PROXY is temporary in PG&E’s view, it must pay the full cost of its utility connections from the start. Moreover, Building and Planning Department fees do not distinguish between permanent and temporary uses, with temporary projects being subject to the same fee schedule as a use that will be in existence for decades longer. Any temporary project will pay more in fees per year of use than permanent projects within the city.

Given these hurdles and their likely dampening effect on creating compelling interim uses that respond to the needs of the city, our hope is that the ongoing experiment of PROXY will catalyze a more responsive set of planning, building and economic development initiatives that will simultaneously accommodate short, middle, long and very long term change within the fabric of the city.

Specifically within the planning realm, our hope is that Planning Departments will become receptive to certain temporary uses that do not require the exact same level of review applied to a permanent project. This reexamination of the mechanisms of review of temporary projects should also include a consideration of applicable fees (which could be proportionally reduced) and the required time periods for review and notification of neighbors.

Within the purview of Building Department review, we agree that temporary uses need to meet both accessibility and life safety components of the Building Code. However, Building Departments could apply lower fees for temporary uses or perhaps even develop a new category of “renewable temporary,” that involve (time-based) licenses and fees rather than full building department review. From an economic development perspective, PROXY lowers the economic barriers to entry making it possible for new small businesses to participate in these temporary uses. The encouragement of startup and small businesses within a thriving retail environment will feed back into the economic vitality of the city. Applying the PROXY model, economic development measures could  be targeted at creating incentives for short term or temporary uses of the underutilized spaces of the city.

The neighborhood in which PROXY is operating has also been critical to its success. Residents of the Hayes Valley neighborhood, active in both the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association and the Hayes Valley Merchant Association, have been strong supporters of the project from the beginning. The partnership that we have developed over years of dialogue has built a level of trust and respect that is invaluable and perhaps rare. Without the direct support and engagement of key people within the neighborhood, the project would not have gone beyond the idea phase. We trust that this partnership will continue to serve both the project and the neighborhood as PROXY unfolds.

More installments: