Empty Lots Turn Into Art in the City

Wednesday, Apr 7, 2010  |  Updated 11:45 AM PDT
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A volunteer helps plant vegetables on Urban Farming's new community garden. Volunteers who work on the project will get to eat the results -- some of the vegetables will be donated to the needy.

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As high-rise construction in San Francisco has stalled during the  economic downturn, most residents likely view the empty lots left behind as  eyesores full of trash, graffiti and weeds.

But when landscape architect Sarah Kuehl passes such spaces, she  sees the physical manifestation of the passage of time.

So when she and three other local architects were asked to submit  ideas for transforming an empty lot at 399 Fremont St. into a temporary  beautification project, they decided to use nature to mark time instead of urban decay.
     
"We wanted to set up a situation where different things might  transform in different ways," group member Adam Greenspan said.

Experts say numerous high-rise building plans have been on hold  for years due to the recession, and it could be a decade before some projects  resume-- if they ever do.

San Francisco has 5,299 vacant lots that take up 250 acres of  space, according to the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research  Association.

In July, the San Francisco Chronicle asked three teams to create  unofficial proposals for vacant lots across the city, and the newspaper  featured the designs last summer.

Today, the Fremont Street team presented their design and  explained the thought process behind their proposal as part of a series of  discussions about empty lots hosted by SPUR.

The Fremont Street team proposed grading the lot into a hilly  terrain that would be visible at street level, then covering it with grass  and laying giant crane booms parallel to the ground.

They were inspired by the idea of giant objects at rest, and they  thought about all the cranes that have gone still since the construction  projects across the city were halted.

Their design also featured a birdhouse wall to keep trespassers  out and an assortment of differently sized birdhouses hanging from the cranes  in order to attract a variety of species.

The bird park would become more beautiful as time passed, the team  explained, as birds gathered and plants grew over the structures.

Although the lot would not be open to the public, "It allows  people to think about possibilities and adds to the streetscape," Greenspan  said.

The design was simply an intellectual exercise meant to inspire  and interest the community, and it appears no such projects have been  sanctioned in the city.

Private developers are reluctant to allow their empty lots to be  transformed in part because supposedly temporary projects sometimes become permanent - such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris and Palace of Fine Arts in San  Francisco.
     
No company wants the bad press associated with tearing down the  beloved community garden once the development project is finally back on  track, the group members explained.

But this "problem of permanence" doesn't have to be a given, group  member Owen Kennerly said. Temporary projects that move, or whose removals  can be an event in and of themselves, are ideal, he said.

Plus, permanent projects require years of permitting and  development, while, "Temporary projects let you try ideas and see if they  take hold," Kennerly said.  

The group considered hot-air balloons that would move up and down  on their own as the temperature changed, which could be moved or released  when the high-rise was ready to be built.

They also thought about Burning Man and the idea of building a  wooden structure whose purpose would be to be destroyed or dismantled later. 

Other temporary project ideas included cover crops, worm farms  that would produce soil, or space for trees to be grown in containers and  later moved.

"Companies could actually score a marketing coup if they made the  coming-down a festival or celebration," Kennerly said.  

Mayor Gavin Newsom's Office of Economic and Workforce Development  is working on protocols and incentives to encourage developers to allow  temporary installations in the empty lots, according to the design team.

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