John King continues to riff on what could be done with the myriad undeveloped and stalled out lots currently dotting San Francisco, this time soliciting visions from teams of architects and designers.
Above, the Fremont Street site for what was to be The Californian being cleared. Below, ‘Vegetated States,’ a conceptual design for the now empty lot by Sarah Kuehl, Owen Kennerly, Adam Greenspan and Sarina Bowen.
Vegetated States: Concept for 375 Fremont (Image Source:
Other concepts include ‘Memory of Water‘ for the lot at 535 Mission and ‘The People’s Public Workshop‘ for 1401 Market where Crescent Heights was ready to rise.
Concepts for 535 Mission and 1401 Market Street lots
Have a concept or design for an empty lot near you? You know where to send it.
Designers who see more than an empty lot [SFGate]
A Five To Ten Year Underdeveloped Empty Lot Plan [SocketSite]
The Californian on Rincon Hill (375 Fremont): Website And Renderings [SocketSite]
‘Vegetated States: Growth Between Booms’ [SFGate]
‘Memory of Water,’ 535 Mission St. [SFGate]
535 Mission Street: From Office To Residential To Office To Suspended [SocketSite]
‘The People’s Public Workshop’ [SFGate]
Crescent Heights: 10th And Market Recap, Rendering, And Details [SocketSite]

46 thoughts on “Visions For Empty Lots 2.0”
  1. As discussed in the previous thread, these likely will never work. I think the solution is guerrilla gardening. The community gets a nice view. The owner gets someone caring for the property. Then, when the owner wants to develop, they can act all huffy and indignant that people are trespassing on his land.
    Of course, the situation can’t go on for too long, or you have an adverse possession issue. But, this is a “solution” for at least a couple of years.

  2. Ick. This doesn’t look inviting at all.
    I think the solution is minimal landscaping and temporary installation of great public art. Keep it simple.

  3. I don’t think its supposed to be inviting…its more like art to look at. There doesn’t appear to be any actual access to the site. With liability issues I can understand that. Its definitely interesting, sort of apocolyptic.

  4. How about something productive, that will provide jobs to locals and generate tax revenue? How about something like a bakery, so we don’t have to ship our bread in from Nevada? Remember that smell of bread we used to have? Before you tell me that the bakeries (and similar PDR businesses) left SF, because they no longer fit in, because they were an inefficient use of space, because their businesses soileed our precious little jewel, because of a hostile business environment, let me tell the real reason…
    PDR was basically kicked the hell out of SF because they were in the way of the land pirates. because the land was so valuable to the developers with their dreams of oversupplied office buildings, empty loft towers, and shoddy “live/work” lofts. And because they could not afford to pay the wages necessary for a worker to afford SF housing.
    Now that these lots are festering, our elitism prevents us from acknowledging the obvious best purpose for these properties.
    Land values will continue to fall to the point where SF will once again become affordable for working class businesses and working class housing.
    It’s going to happen, because viable business will return when the rents return to earth. Or else the city will continue to deteriorate, becoming something dead and sterile, which only the Galts will love.

  5. Fremont and Harrison is the intersection of San Francisco first seen by people taking the first exit off of the Bay Bridge into San Francisco (Harrison Street). There’s a lot of room for improvement for this corner compared to what’s there right now. I’m happy that alternatives are being discussed since that corner will likely have no permanent construction for years and years.

  6. I think the solution is to make entitlement processes shorter and predictable so that entitlement and construction and sale/lease/rent can actually occur within a cycle. But good luck with that. As for any ‘alternative’ use of these vacant lots, good luck having anything happen other than a parking lot. Build some sort of park or art installation and then have the community deem it ‘historic’ down the road. Also, who is going to fund this crap? The land owner/developer? Think not.

  7. Personally, I’d rather leave it as is instead of turning it into a parking lot … that’d be a big step backwards in Rincon Hill.

  8. two beers, can you please expand the term “PDR businesses”? The only thing I can think of is paintless dent repair, which just might work on this section of Fremont but I don’t think it’s what you had in mind.

  9. parking spaces?
    get a clue. talk about adding blight to a neighborhood. at least with vacant lots you can have green weeds and flowers.
    @Dede – these projects all had radically, incredibly short entitlement processes. once the rincon hill plan was adopted, these projects all went through like greased lightning. the projects have been entitled for years — pretty much all were proposed and entitled in 2005. they had plenty of time to build in the last boom. but the owners of the sites would rather have played the property flip game than actually build. you have to understand that many “developers” who take projects through the entitlement phase never intend to build them themeselves. What happened with these many of these RH projects was that they were entitled by one entity, and then shopped around for a year or more for a buyer asking high prices for the land. By the time the entitlements changed hands and the new owners ramped up and got ready to build, the bottom fell out.

  10. Brahma (appropriate handle!), from the SF Planning Dept, one or two jobs in addition to your “dent repair”:
    “Production, distribution, and repair (PDR) businesses and workers prepare our food and print our books; produce the sounds and images for our movies; take people to the airport; arrange flowers and set theatrical stages; build houses and offices; pick up our mail and garbage. PDR businesses are responsible for many of the crucial foundations of our City but they tend to be invisible to those not directly involved.”
    “Small repair services (Using machinery no more than 5 horsepower capacity): auto repair, appliance repair, furniture repair, instruments repair (medical and optical, photographic, watches and clocks), Small manufacturing and distribution businesses that indirectly or directly serve adjacent neighborhoods, food processing (not including assembly line production of canned or bottled goods) and catering, small distribution, tradeshops, including metal, glass, leather, woodwork, Small graphic design studios and photography labs, small graphic design and multi-media studios, sign design, photography labs, instruments manufacturing, printing and publishing (books, newspapers), Arts activities, Space for exhibitions, rehearsals, and schools of any of the following: dance, music, dramatic art, film, video, graphic art, painting, drawing, sculpture, small-scale glass works, ceramics, textiles, woodworking, photography, custom-made jewelry or apparel, and other visual, and sound arts and studios, workshops, archives, theaters, and other similar spaces customarily used principally for arts activities. It shall also include commercial arts and art-related business services including, but not limited to, recording and editing services, small-scale film and video developing and printing; titling; video and film libraries; special effects production; fashion and photo stylists; production, sale and rental of theatrical wardrobes.” {edited for space}

  11. How about a monument to the completely podunk, provincial, dont you dare cut a blade of that historic grass mentality that pervades any development discourse in this overgrown suburb of a town.
    It’s beautiful here, but I sure cant stand how incredibly small minded the people are.

  12. Parking spaces wouldn’t cost that much, would be practical and the space would be used until the economy warranted something permanent.
    Parking spaces are a realistic and practical temporary use.
    Who exactly is going to pay for the gardens? You?
    What owner will want to take on the liability of guerilla gardening?
    Real estate should be used and not sit vacant. That would actually be a backward step.

  13. If parking lots could be approved, there are dozens of vendors who would clear the lot, pave and stripe it, and have it in operation in less than a month. Lot owner gets some income, parking lot operator gets some income, neighbors get some utility, City gets some taxes. Everybody wins. Chances of gaining approvals, ZERO.
    Alternatively (and arguably a better option): Some non-profit could raise some money, clear the lot, irrigate and sod and open up for some art work. Voluntary donations, pretty spaces for public enjoyment, artist gets some visibility, no income to speak of, but a positive experience for all. Again, chances of gaining the proper approvals, ZERO.
    Stop being logical, guys. Sheesh …
    Sorry to be a pessimist (not that there is any shortage of pessimists on this blog), but I have been through SF entitlement (pun intended) too many times. If its not the City, its the neighbors, the unions, etc.

  14. Hmm, only “Memory of Water” looks interesting. The other two look amature, and almost worse than what’s there now. To me, “Vegetated State” looks like we took the vacant lot and added some construction trash (trusses and paint cans). And “People Public Workshop” looks like a mural, at best.
    Maybe that could be a solution…murals on temporary walls surrounding the properties. That would be a good way to encourage public art without having big painted hearts or a bow-and-arrow.

  15. Reminds me of East Berlin during the days of “the wall”. They had no industry or retail, so they would construct strange public art, fountains and memorials to disguise the fact that nothing was going on economically.

  16. As long as San Francisco continues to have its confiscatory tax policies and mandates (e.g. “Healthy San Francisco”), no one in their right mind would open a PDR business that has a chance to grow. It simply would cost too much money to be profitable.
    So we get blight. Thanks you stupid Supervisors.

  17. Brahma, a few PDR names you might have heard of: Anchor Steam, Dolby Labs, Last Gasp. Yep, there is gen-yew-wine commerce going on in those buildings standing in your way.
    Why can’t they all just move to China, and get out of the way of our beautiful condo towers?
    We should just change the name of SF to “Bubblesville”

  18. Why not build a statue of Peskin with a sign that reads “please graffiti and deface me.” Then, when it’s at least 5 years old, we can declare it an historical monument so no one can ever remove it.

  19. Usually Names, you’re usually wrong. I own a PDR business. Somehow I’ve survived. But what has held me back from growth is not Sf tax policies and mandates, but the absurd commercial rents in the town. I operate at peak capacity, and can’t physically expand. I walk to work, and I don’t want to live in Manteca.
    But as the economy settles, prices drop to the norm, and things begin to return to sanity. We must prevent the land pirates from taking the city down into the crapper with them.

  20. I agree with flaneur. Solar farms might be a decent use for empty lots. Some cash flow to land owners and PGE can recover the capital costs via agreements for x square feet of solar energy generation on future buildings. Probably less revenue than converting to parking for most sites downtown, but more politically feasible.

  21. @Paul Hwang:
    “What owner will want to take on the liability of guerilla gardening?”
    That’s why it’s called guerrilla. It’s without the owner’s permission (though not necessarily illegal, since there are ways to avoid breaking any criminal laws). Many owners of vacant lots turn a blind eye to guerrilla gardens. If the owner doesn’t acknowledges the gardeners, the owner is less likely to be liable for any actions of the gardeners.

  22. Solar farms? The economics sound counter-intuitive. There is no clear timeline on the project and the upfront costs are pretty high: you just don’t slap solar panels straight on landfill, these need to be bolted to something solid.
    That would be for PR, not ROI.

  23. I get it. Buildings that provide jobs for SF workers are obsolete. Business such as world class breweries, bakeries, and film production should move to China, or at least Nevada, but solar farms are an appropriate use of potential job-creating space. I’m all for solar farms, but they belong on roofs and in the country, not on land that can provide productive urban jobs or affordable housing.
    Apparently, the formerly productive must be left barren until the mythical next bubble magically appears to rescue the land pirate who overpaid for his lot.

  24. @San FronziScheme Yes, I know, it’s problematic from the energy generator’s POV. That’s why I was attempting to brainstorm a way to allow the solar panel operator to recover costs and eventually profit. It probably still wouldn’t pencil even with long term rights to building surfaces (yet another capital cost for new panels when the building goes up) and there are a million reasons why PGE would not be up for owning panels on a highrise. Maybe a place here for a niche energy company (recurrent?) or nonprofit?

  25. So if I hear everyone correctly, what we really need here is a solar-powered parking garden built by disgruntled former PDR employees. We get the laid-off bakers to build the parking lot, and the unemployed artists to paint & stripe it. Local residents can plant flowers between the parking stalls, and we install an attendant booth that’s solar-powered and staffed by the homeless who currently squat in the area. Then the land pirates have some place to park their foreign cars when they drive into town to scout out locations in preparation for the next bubble. Did I overlook anything?

  26. two beers, maybe you’d have more luck starting a dialog if you’d get that chip off your shoulder. People on this post are brainstorming and asking questions, and you’re responding with ad hominem attacks.

  27. @two beers: For what it’s worth, I own a PDR business too (I’d never heard that term), but we opened it in Berkeley because SF was too expensive (rents and higher taxes). Pyramid Brewery is in berkeley, for example. Blue bottle roasts in oakland, on the Emeryville border.
    I think the land pirate rhetoric is pretty funny, but take it easy! Some of the folks here are posting from their cubicles, and they evidently don’t have a lot to do. Wait till their COBRA runs out, they might join your crusade 🙂
    You are my favorite new poster, btw!

  28. @Legacy Dude: ROFL!
    …Seriously, though, you forgot to add the 8 years of community input to define said plan.

  29. anon – have to agree. It’s really hard separating out the chest-beating from the substance of what two beers has to say. And the chest beating just makes me not want to pay attention to any of it.

  30. anon: yeah, I can be abrasive. It’s born of disgust with the re-arranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic, the strawman arguments, the tautologies automatically regurgitated by the land pirates — okay, dub dub, the landlord/developer/realtor/banker/mortgage machine 😉
    “Light industry has no place in SF.” “Only hippie marxists want working class jobs and affordable housing.” “Let’s turn empty lots into solar farms or parking lots while waiting for the next bubble.” “Repealing rent control will lower rents.” etc.
    As for ad hominem rhetoric, I’m guilty as charged, but I’m called bitter, myopic, unrealistic…it goes both ways.
    I’ve been reading here for a while. I like the objective focus on SF real estate and the back and forth in the comments. I admit to the schadenfreude in watching the collapse of the bubble, as documented here daily. I wish ill only to the likes of the Lembis and the RBA – the land pirates who caused so much devastation and displacement. I feel sorry for the poor suckers who bought into bubble. I was trying to discourage friends from buying back in 2003 (not good for friendships :(, because it was clear to me what Greenspan had wrought, and that there would be hell to pay, and that only the poor schmucks at the bottom would pay for it. So, yeah, I’m bitter that I have to bail out the billionaires at Goldman Sachs, who benefited the most from the bubble.
    I’m not trying to prove anything: what’s happening (deflation) should be obvious. I you don’t see, please don’t ask me for a bailout when you go bust, mm-kay?

  31. However these empty lots are used during the down turn (if at all), it has to be practical and cost effective to the owner of the land. Parking lots, golf driving ranges may fit that description.
    In the end, it may make more economic sense just to leave the lots empty until development becomes once again more profitable. If they are left empty the city should insist that lots are well maintained by the owners. Some of the spaces around Rincon Hill look awful.

  32. For what it’s worth, I own a PDR business too (I’d never heard that term), but we opened it in Berkeley because SF was too expensive (rents and higher taxes).
    Thanks for helping to stabilize the local tax base.
    … Berkeley’s budget will actually grow, albeit by less than 1 percent. The sales tax increase is due, in part, to the quirky nature of the Berkeley economy. The city has virtually no big-box retailers. Instead of shopping malls, the city has clusters of stores in various neighborhoods, Elmwood to Solano Avenue. The result is that “during times of prosperity, we don’t grow that much,” said Kamlarz. “And during downturns, we don’t decline that much.”

  33. Pedestrian safety is already a problem in Rincon Hill. Air quality is already a problem in Rincon Hill. A parking lot would add to both of those problems. No thanks.

  34. Is a PBR business like one of those bars in the Mish that sell cold cans of Pabst for $2 ?

  35. Land pirates?
    Blame screwed up incentives from CCSF trying to extract their flesh and determine how land should be “properly” used for why land use is all screwed up.
    But don’t blame so-called land pirates. They’re just like you — trying to make a dollar.

  36. “Pedestrian safety is already a problem in Rincon Hill. Air quality is already a problem in Rincon Hill. A parking lot would add to both of those problems. No thanks.”
    Jamie, I agree that a parking lot is not ideal but in the short term is it worse than a empty lot with trash everywhere? I don’t think so but I understand your opposition. (BTW, there’s a private parking lot on Main and Mission that is really well maintained.)
    Unfortunately because Rincon Hill is adjacent to one of the busiest bridges and commuter routes in North America, pedestrian safety and air quality are always going to be a significant problem. Adding a single level parking lot I don’t think would have much of a negative impact particularly if it is temporary in nature.

  37. Paul – I think you may be onto something with the golf driving range. With the range that used to be in Mission Bay now gone, the closest range that I know of would be the Presidio. I’m guessing plenty of golfers from North beach to the Mission would appreciate the addition. Hence, this might well generate more revenue than a parking lot and add more ‘recreational space’ to the neighborhood. Plus, it’s easy to remove if and when the Californian is built. Good call.

  38. One way to keep the permits alive is to start construction. Just keep the crew size small and use hand tools.

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