How to Turn a Vacant Lot into an Urban Oasis

Facing a construction delay? Cut down the razor wire and bring in a petting zoo (or a circus or a movie night).

For every bustling, beeping, rebar-rooted construction site in San Francisco, there is one sitting empty and still awaiting permit approvals, Planning Department sign-offs, and funding. And for developing neighborhoods or communities sorely in need of commerce and services, this often years-long development purgatory can indeed be hellish. Douglas Burnham of architecture firm Envelope A+D has long envisioned another way forward. The mastermind behind Hayes Valley’s much-loved Proxy space, a temporary plaza on the site of a future housing development that’s currently alive with food vendors, screenings, and performances, Burnham has become the city’s preeminent infill activator. “A city doesn’t have to wait around for a developer to come and make a place better,” he says. “We can transform the perception of a site with a very light touch and a short timeline.”

Having made its name with Proxy, Envelope A+D was tapped to contribute to another of the city’s ambitious development projects, the Hunters Point Shoreline. There, a brand-new bayfront park designed by Envelope A+D in collaboration with RHAA Landscape Architects and Studio O opened to the public on March 1. While many will interact with this newly polished piece of the city for the first time by rolling down its bike lanes or lounging on its benches, residents have been getting reacquainted with this land for the past few years as part of Now Hunters Point, Envelope’s program to engage neighbors and find out exactly what kind of finished product they would most benefit from. “We began a very long-term engagement with the community asking what they want,” Burnham says. “That’s very unusual. Typically, what happens is experts and engineers and architects go inside a room and lock the doors and come up with ideas. Then they schedule one community meeting where people have 15 minutes to yell and scream, and that’s it.”

With simple design elements such as mobile planter boxes, a shipping container turned StoryCorps recording booth, and a schedule of regular programming, residents have been enjoying petting zoos, health workshops, circuses, job-training events, and movie nights. The community, he says, “were used to razor wire surrounding this place, so how do you flip that script and make people feel comfortable and safe here?”

Projects like these require clients with a nuanced view of development. It was PG&E, which owns and is developing the larger 32-acre tract in Hunters Point, that hired Burnham’s firm and has funded the intervening years of activities, from the farm animals to the crane for the high-flying circus performers. But it’s hard to argue that an engaged and insightful research phase for a large and pricey project isn’t a wise investment.

In an industrial corner of West Berkeley, Burnham has nearly completed the Lot at Foundry 31, a Proxy-inspired hub that will bring the simple pleasures of coffee, food, and shady places to sit to an area where there was formerly, well, not much. “It’s about the creation of a place where there isn’t a place,” Burnham says. Like the others, the Lot will help stamp a once-unknown location on people’s mental map—as well as help the local property owner assess what to build when he’s ready to make a permanent investment. “Architects, by training, are able to see these multiple simultaneous futures. But most people need to see it and feel and touch it,” Burnham says. “It’s like a rendering, but it’s one step further.”