Location: Two lots on Octavia Street between Hayes and Fell Streets. San Francisco (CA)
Size: Lot K is 1115 m² and Lot L is 520 m²
Project Type: Temporary commercial
Year of completion: November 2010 (4 phases over 5 years)
Client Name: City of San Francisco
Architects: Envelope A+D.
Design costs: $40,000 – $90,000 per vendor
Budget: phase 1: $300,000 – phases 2, 3 & 4 ($200,000 per phase)
Value of lease: $5,000 a month paid to the city for Lot K and $2,000 for Lot L.



A placeholder for more permanent development, proxy is a temporary two-block project that creates an ever-changing experience in a neighborhood in transition. Leasing empty lots from the city (formerly occupied by an elevated freeway), San Francisco architect Douglas Burnham (founder & principal of envelope a+d) has engineered a thriving destination, to generate a four-year progression, with pop-up food stands, art installations, a beer garden, an area for food trucks, and event and retail spaces. Revamped shipping containers compose an open frame- work that embraces the potential of impermanence, encouraging the rotation of new businesses and happenings. With plans for outdoor films and a farmers’ market, proxy has become the focal point of its community and an inspiration to cities across the U.S. looking to maximize the potential of latent real estate, temporarily transforming underused but high-value urban areas into a thriving cultural experience.



The proxy project is located in the neighborhood of Hayes Valley, in the City of San Francisco (California, USA), occupying two vacant lots K + L in the Central Freeway Development, along Octavia Street, between Fell and Hayes Street and bisected by Linden Alley. These two empty spaces were a surface parking lot and a vacant inaccessible lot.


Hayes Valley is a small neighborhood of 5672 residents, within the city of San Francisco (population: 825,111), between the historical districts of Alamo Square and Civic Center. It was a multi-ethnic neighborhood, becoming, with the blossoming of the Fillmore district after World War II, an African American neighborhood. The elevated Central Freeway was built in the neighborhood during the 1950s and brought with it urban blight and decay. Damaged during the Loma Prieta earthquake, it was closed afterward. In January of 1991 Hayes Valley residents initiated a petition for the unusable freeway to be torn down. The following year the freeway came down, and for the first time “there was light” on streets and storefronts that had long been in shadow. The relationships formed during this time helped the community form a vision for the future of Hayes Valley. The City Planning Department, in collaboration with local residents, developed the Market-Octavia Area Plan, outlining guidelines for development in the areas affected by the removal of the freeway and focusing largely on housing developments for the twenty vacant lots.

This neighborhood is unique in that the population is notably diverse economically, racially, and generationally, and it is comprised of many artists, designers, architects and forward-thinkers. The residents wanted to see something happen, take part, and really invest in it, which is quite a non-traditional role for the public to assume. They wanted an activated space that would enhance the community rather than remain vacant and put the neighborhood at risk of more blight. The Hayes Valley merchants wanted to see economic growth while respecting neighborhood businesses. The design of these visions was then put in motion by the Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD).


Population involved

Over the years, this community has suffered very important changes. Since the construction of the Central Freeway in 1950, the neighborhood population was basically African-American, and the construction of this infrastructure brought the decay to the area, as we said before. With the demolition of the Central Freeway structure, the neighborhood started a process of change.

This change is due to the gentrification which has suffered the neighborhood lately, bringing it back to life. Hayes Valley now is a mix of old time residents, young professionals and families. Residents of Hayes Valley are protective of the Bohemian character and community ethic that still thrive. The Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association is active in local issues.

The idea of proxy, is to involve the Hayes Valley community as much as possible to create a comfortable atmosphere with the new activities that are going to take place in their neighborhood, even if the developers are not the community itself. Is the local neighborhood association who took care about the participation of the community during the develop phase of the project. The program contemplates activities for the different collectives of the neighborhood as children, teenagers, adults and elder people, but not just the neighborhood, the whole city is invited to participate in proxy.


The vacant lots of the project came to exist through a series of events that started when the elevated, double-decker 101 Central Freeway was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. After the earthquake, the fate of the elevated freeway was thrown into a contentious decade-long debate that was finally resolved through a local ballot measure. In 1999, a Hayes Valley Neighborhood-sponsored measure won voter approval to remove the damaged elevated freeway and create a surface boulevard for distributing the 101 Freeway traffic into the city grid. The design of the boulevard, by planner Allan Jacobs, ended up creating a series of 22 irregular shaped vacant lots, the difference between the footprint of the former Central Freeway and the new Octavia Boulevard plan.


The San Francisco Mayor’s Office was given control of these vacant lots, labeled alphabetically from Lot A at the northern end to Lot V at the intersection of Octavia and Market Streets to the south, with the goal of bringing both market-rate and subsidized housing to the neighborhood and repairing the void left by the removal of the Central Freeway. Due to the economic downturn of 2008, proposals for market-rate housing on these vacant lots were put on hold by the private architect/developer teams, and the Mayor’s Office initiated a request for proposals for temporary uses to prevent these plots degrade if they are not used for long time, as an interim condition until the economy recovers.

Agents involved

Caltrans is the state agency responsible for highway, bridge, and rail transportation planning, construction, and maintenance. This agency owned the land where the 101 Freeway was placed before de demolition. They deeded the land to the Major’s Office.

– The main agent, who made possible the proxy project, was the San Francisco Major’s Office of Workforce and Economic Development. This agent made a Request of Proposals (RFP) for uses on the vacant lots that weren’t going to be used for the Octavia Boulevard.

San Francisco Building and Planning Department, has the role to allow the growth and planning of the city and to establish the fees to occupy the land of the city.

– The project which was picked in the RPF was the proposal from Envelope A+D (Architecture+Design) Is a collaborative design firm with a wide range of experience creating non-traditional architectural and design solutions for residence, restaurants, businesses, museums, and more. The firm will perform architectural and content creation services for the project.

PROXYdevelopment, LLC will be on charge of the management of the construction and ongoing management of the property and the vendor relationships. PROXYdevelopment is owned by a small investor group, which includes Douglas Burnham (principal of envelope a+d). PROXYdevelopment will hire construction and property management personnel as required for each phase of the project. In addition, PROXYdevelopment will garner a volunteer Board of Directors consisting of key local business and San Francisco arts community members who will direct the rotating content and events within the Project

– In the upcoming phases of the project the art component will be financed by philanthropists.

Corporate Sponsorship will be involved in the upcoming phases of the project draw to fund the frameworks and programming for retail and events.

– Envelope A+D convinced the vendors and content providers to fund the design and fabrication of their own components within the project, so they can simply disconnect the utility hookups and move elsewhere.

Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association and Hayes Valley Merchant Association have supported the project from the beginning.

Citizens from San Francisco. Proxy wasn’t designed just to serve Hayes Valley; all the citizens can enjoy this new public space



In 2009, Envelope A+D presented proxy, an experiment in flexible urbanism, as a response  to a formal Request for Proposals from the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Workforce and Economic Development to lots K and L (Lot K is 1115 m² and Lot L is 520 m²), and they were picked to develop their project. The Request for Proposals was about temporary uses on the vacant/underused lots left over from the removal of the 101 Central Freeway structure. Also the city wasn’t financing the project and it would be a charge for rent: $5,000 a month paid to the city for Lot K and $2,000 for Lot L.


The architects were interested in the public presence of the two lots K+L along Patricia’s Green, on the east side of Octavia Boulevard. These two lots would allow creating a temporary construct that could contribute a vibrant place for both commerce and culture to the heart of Hayes Valley. The project was conceived with the understanding of its temporary nature – that it is just a placeholder until a more permanent structure takes its place. That’s why the project is called proxy. The primary mechanism of proxy is the re-imaging of place: a curated, compelling and opportunistic programming of urban space so that people can start to see possibility where before there was only a void.

proxy is a space for thoughtful experimentation to occur: changing public perception of what is possible, allowing the city to become a more open and playful construct. Conceived with the knowledge of its short lifespan on the site and operating under the motto HERE FOR NOW, proxy is an investigation of impermanence: stressing the importance of presence, heightened engagement and of seizing the moment in our lives.

To allow for the procurement of funding sources, garnering community support, and navigating municipal bureaucracy the necessity of phasing was developed, and the four phases of proxy emerged. Phasing also supports the “content machine” concept allowing the opportunity to “design it and detail it and deploy it and critique it and then design it and detail it and deploy it and critique it again.” To achieve this flexible construction, the two-block proxy complex is being built out of sturdy yet ultimately mobile shipping containers.

The phases are the followings, starting with food, then art, then retail and, finally, event/play. The reasons for the phased implementation of the project are both conceptual and practical. Conceptually, there is an interest 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, in this case the architects are not only the designers of the project, they are also its developers. Assuming this latter role has presented new challenges as well as unforeseen benefits.

In order to make proxy work, envelope A+D thoughtfully curated every element of the site: carefully considering which vendors joined the site, when, and for how long Current vendors include a mix of those hand-picked by envelope A+D and others who approached the firm. According to proxy’s project manager, the main criterion for the ongoing task of vendor selection is the alignment of intentions. Each vendor had their own reasons for joining the proxy project, but they had many shared intentions and were eager to promote envelope A+D’s intention to create a place of connected culture through the use of flexible, temporary design.


proxy EAT

Conceived out of San Francisco’s vibrant food culture, proxy EAT is a series of fixed and rotating vendors that seek to present a diverse range food offerings. proxy’s inhabitation of the site began with proxy EAT to build both excitement and community through the sharing of food. Rooted long-term vendors, rotating chefs, carts and trucks cycle through proxy creating constantly changing gastronomic experiences. Today, proxy EAT is Smitten Ice Cream, Ritual Coffee. Suppenkuche’s Biergarten and a several food carts, trucks and trailers a day.


proxy ART

proxy ART seeks to bring art to the public realm, where people can engage with it in their daily lives. Art is both held within a gallery structure and installed throughout the proxy site. Guest curated by SF curators and artist-curators around the notion of HERE FOR NOW, the work extends the conceptual framework of proxy, focusing on impermanence, the ephemeral, presence and direct experience. The proxy ART gallery structure is designed to be demountable—a redeployable gallery—with the intention that it can and should be located elsewhere after the physical construct of proxy San Francisco ceases to exist. The mission of proxy ART is also designed to eventually extend beyond the Hayes Valley site, bringing art to the public realm on and within undervalued sites anywhere.



A series of small-scale pop-ups of curated vendors that contain new and unique offerings in design, retail, brand and services. Specific vendors are asked to participate in proxy STOREFRONT and the content within the storefront frames is curated as intentional groupings that rotate through proxy on a rapid three-month cycle. Glazed steel frames of either 64 square feet (8×8 ft) or 160 sf (8×20 ft), these spaces are really a “storefront without the store.” Some proxy STOREFRONT spaces will, in fact, be used as tiny stores, but others are used just for the exhibition of wares, ideas and products.

Proxy STOREFRONT includes local designers (of all kinds), unique retail offerings (perhaps not available elsewhere), didactic venues for local non-profits, major brand pop up experiences, and even novel-but-necessary professional services.



Is a space for both community and commerce, proxy EVENT/PLAY is a covered, semi-interior space with flexibility to house a range of events from (semi) outdoor movies, to community meetings, runway shows, an urban beach, art openings, makers’ fairs or even large scale pop-up stores. Proxy EVENT/PLAY exists at the heart of proxy, surrounded by proxy STOREFRONT and proxy EAT, and programmatically connected to proxy ART, extending and expanding the interrelationship between and flexibility of proxy’s component parts.


Since proxy is only in the second of four phases, a more major analysis should come once proxy is “complete” and then again once the site has made the transition to the planned permanent development. However, gauging interim reception of the current phase is important to the refinement of design intentions as the project moves into its next phases.


Social Strategy

The proxy project has a mixed-use program of activities, from food, to art, events and storefronts. The advantage of programming for the developers is that it can be used intentionally to increase the diversity, heterogeneity and intensity of the city, satisfying both public and private interests and contributing to the larger project of a more fully programmed city. The main statement for this project is flexible urbanism, as a content machine. A flexible urbanism, which allows creating diverse experiences that can be imagined and implemented on a short term basis, as a test, to then have the possibility for future densified uses.


Also we have to refer to the communication of the project. The city hall is interested in get attention to the new development of the empty plots in the 101 Cetral Freeway areas. The motto of proxy is “HERE FOR NOW”, this words let us understand the temporary character of the project. It offers us an opportunity to try something that maybe tomorrow could go away. All vendors, as well as the proxy site, are represented through multiple platforms (Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter, and Yelp), and each source provides a unique angle on visitor data. Even long time Hayes Valley residents of an older generation recognize that social media is “part of creating buzz and excitement for this neighborhood.”

social media

A very important strategy as well is the engagement of both, the community and the developers with the projects. The implication of the agents from the beginning enhances the final result, where you can find the coherence of the project. The neighborhood in which proxy is operating has also been critical to its success. Residents of the Hayes Valley Neighborhood through the Neighborhood Association and the Merchant Association have been strong supporters of the project from the beginning. The partnership that they 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. This partnership will continue to serve both the project and the neighborhood as proxy unfolds.

Environmental Strategy

The idea of the whole project is flexible urbanism. This conception includes a very important environmental strategy. The complex is built with shipping containers along two blocks. These containers are easily transportable, durable and re-usable. When this project finishes in two or three years, the plot has to go back to the city, so they have to be capable to remove all the structures. The right mix is critical to environmental responsibility, too.  Beyond meeting the energy-performance requirements of the California Building Code, Proxy incorporates several best practices for sustainability. For instance, the “rooted”  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.

proxy is conceived of with an ethic of sustainability and reuse. The southern face of the L site will sponsor a demonstration photovoltaic array for on-site power generation. A water collection will be used for irrigation of on-site plantings and the existing asphalt surface will be partially removed to allow for pervious paving in common areas. Retail pods and frames will be re-used or recycled after this inhabitation. Most other components will be rented or recycled after proxy is dismantled.

The architects designed the elements to minimize energy consumption. The units are insulated, but not heated. They were able to do this only as a result of negotiations with San Francisco building officials. This is because their uses are more like state-fair vendors than stores or restaurants, as both serve directly to the exterior. Also, the no-heat option is made possible by the Bay Area’s year-round moderate climate. As proxy is an experiment, the architects will continue to investigate more ways to conserve energy by rethinking our assumptions about comfort.

13 construction

Economic Strategy

Typically the City’s expectations for economically beneficial development is based on the number of jobs created, cost of construction, or rise in property values, however, these measurements are not appropriate indicators of economic benefit of the development of proxy. The City adjusted their criteria for evaluating economic benefit to include fostering small business growth through experimentation and innovation, which aligned better with the social and economic intentions of both the community and the firm.

The budget of this project is $200,000 for phase 1 and infrastructure + $300,000 per phase (2, 3 and 4). But the city offer no funding, grants, or loans, also is a charge for rent: $5,000 a month paid to the city for Lot K and $2,000 for Lot L. 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 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. The vendors were surprised to find that opening a shipping container store at proxy was actually more expensive than moving into an existing building – costs for initial design, construction, and setup have been $40,000 to $90,000 for most vendors. This has urged the company to begin exploring options for what comes next years in advance. Finally, he found philanthropists for the art components, and corporate donations for frameworks and ongoing events.


From an economic development perspective, proxy lowers the economic barriers to entry making it possible for new small business to participate in these temporary uses. The encouragement of startup and small business 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.

Due to the economic uncertainty, spontaneous interventions offer cities a strategy for remaining not only economically viable, but relevant—able to adapt to the rapid changes advanced by contemporary culture. To be successful, certain conditions must be met. There must be developers who support creative initiatives that enhance the cultural and economic value of place; arts, urban advocacy, and place making philanthropic groups who align their efforts to promote the cultural benefits that these interventions create; and economic development measures that offer incentives for temporary uses of underutilized spaces.

These experiments also require designers, developers, philanthropists, and city agencies who 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.

Cultural Strategy

The biggest asset of the architects turned out to be the neighborhood itself. As a local, Burnham 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, and thus “uniquely positioned for a project like proxy.”


This project is being developed by an architecture firm, but still the users are involved in the process of change in proxy space. Starting with the self-design and construction of the containers by the vendors, we can find a DIY urbanism flow in some of the stages, not all of them. This tendency is cheap, quick and temporary, so it has all the benefits that proxy needs, besides the users benefit of their cultural program.

We can find a social mixity between the Bay Area residents and tourists, who 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. When proxy reaches its full potential as an urban construct, it will offer a dynamic, interactive and immersive experience with Northern California sensibility toward the enjoyment of good food, wine, beer, art and design. The goal of proxy is to provide a framework for changing content that reflects and responds to the pace of our contemporary culture, respecting also its background. The spaces within the project also bring people together within the city in relation to the experience of food and drink, outdoor movie screenings, changing events and designed urban play environments. Even the shipping containers themselves recall the city’s illustrious history as a port and alert us to the innovation that led to the cargo port’s demise.

16Proxy3 (1)



proxy project is creating a new way to do urbanism in the city of San Francisco. One of its successes is the good reception of the project by the citizens. This mixed used project just brought to the area a new conception. proxy acts as a content machine tied to the pace of contemporary culture that embraces the city’s vast diversity, encouraging the rotation of new ideas, start-up businesses and art. This success is tightly related of a special combination of the city of San Francisco being a very experimental, embracing, tech-thinking city. People are capable to see the benefit of the project and can be receptive.

The creation of this new kind of project created a whole mess in the Building and Planning Department because the “temporary buildings” do not exist in the Building Code. Every turn had a roadblock that had to be cleared through intense discussion and clarification. With this new situation maybe the ongoing experiment of proxy will catalyze a more responsive set of planning, building and economic development regarding the laws and the existing building code.

This good reception is for two main reasons. The relation between the neighborhood and the developers, and envelope A+D, the entity who is taking care of make proxy work. The good communication with the neighborhood it’s an example of a process which involves people very early in the project, to show them the early designs, get their opinion and comments and feedback. It was an interesting and unique idea, so they try as hard as they can to find a way to make it work. Also, as long as you have an entity, like Envelope A+D, who curates the users or the retailers as well as the design, it’s a really good formula. The aesthetic and design that Envelope A+D has created and the careful consideration of vendors, taking in consideration the already existing conditions in the area.

The project nowadays is getting a lot of attention in the media. This is to the service of the city, because it needs examples to point to showing that it is responsive to people, change, and things that are going on, and is willing to try something new. Proxy is exiting and everyone wants to get involved because is a new space to try new things.

But not everything is shining in the process. There are always disagreements and the city needs to be prepared to give an answer to people who do not agree.  The project is in a parking lot, and is going to be someone who really cares about parking lot and others who cares about try something new. Always is easier to keep something existing that changing it, but people need some time to reconfigure their concept about a place and its function.

Because of its success proxy has been extended for 8 years, until 2021. Proxy was originally only scheduled to be around for three years when it leased the space at Hayes and Octavia in 2010, and the contract was extended to five years in 2012. Their monthly rent, currently $5,000, will increase to $7,200 in 2015 and go up 2% every year after that through 2021


This is a successful area right now, because the city is focusing on develop it, but there are a lot of neighborhoods which are complaining about the lack of interest of the city in them. While some neighborhoods are gaining, others are struggling to keep going.

The project found some cons at the beginning, the most important was that the city wasn’t funding the project, and it would be a charge rent for the land proxy occupied. . Building and Planning Department fees  do not distinguish between permanent and temporary uses, with temporary uses 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. To solve this problem, the architects had to come up with an original solution to finance the project. Finally they were capable to solve the problem, and it became a success instead of a failure, it would have killed the project from the beginning.

The project is based in a very strong environmental strategy of using containers because they are are easily transportable, durable and re-usable, but this strategy is not free from controversy. Because even if shipping containers are an alternative to traditional building materials, there are some downsides to use them. The materials used to make these containers durable for ocean transport happen to contain a number of harmful chemicals.

One unintended reception by the neighborhood is the confusion that exists regarding the management of the site. It is quite an unconventional role for the architect to take on the roles of property leasing and management. The firm often receives the complaints regarding trash because there is a confusion of who to otherwise direct this commentary.

There is also a lack of clarity regarding the work of Envelope versus that of the City. As a representative from OEWD relays, “The City” often becomes culprit when any issues arise. Envelope A+D acknowledges that public awareness of proxy is not what it could be, and the firm is working on creating informative posters for the site in response. It is worth noting that while the intentions of activating this space and providing amenities for the neighborhood have been well received, it does not reflect initial specific neighborhood suggestions such as high-end grocery or hardware stores that were just not feasible within the “temporary” framework. Even now there is occasionally expressed the desire for vendors that are more practical, such as a shoe repair store, rather than more of the “five dollar coffees” that can already be found in the neighborhood.

There has not been any sort of economic benefit analysis conducted by the City to indicate how proxy might be contributing to citywide economic growth. Even OEWD admits that proxy does not lend itself to such assessment. Still, it seems to bring economic value to the city. Survey and social media data indicate that proxy patrons are often from outside the city bringing in more revenue for local businesses.


– A short term basis project conceived as an experiment of flexible urbanism

– Catalyze a more responsive set of planning, building and economic development in the city to new kinds of urbanism. .

– Engagement of both, developers and neighborhood since the very beginning.

– The architects are the designers, but also the developers, having a tight relation with all the process. The aesthetic and design that the architects have created, and the careful consideration of vendors, taking in consideration the already existing conditions in the area.

– Increase the diversity of the area by using its context background. Programmatic phases strictly related to the tradition of the city, offering an immersive experience of its sensibility.

– Feedback into the economic vitality of the area because of spontaneous interventions

– An opportunity to small or new business to start in a very special context

– Original solution to finance the project, because there was no funding.

– Sustainability as a design concept and with the intention to use the development of the project to investigate more ways to conserve energy

– Communication of the project to get the attention of the users, and to use the project as an example to point.





ON SITE IN THE CITY. Interviews and reflections on proxy:

Douglas Burnham (principal envelope a+d)

Rich Hillis (San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Economic& Workforce Development)

Mark Luellen (City of san Francisco planning department)

Lizzie Wallack, (proxy project architect)


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