Three urban park planning and design experts stopped by Redwood City’s Fox Forum last week to share their work and offer ideas that could be incorporated into future downtown park projects.
The speakers were Douglas Burnham, an architect with San Francisco-based firm Envelope A+D, Ilana Lipsett, a community organizer and co-founder of Freespace, a movement to turn vacant spaces into cultural hubs, and Ben Stone, director of arts and culture for Smart Growth America.
The event was specifically meant to help shape plans for a new park in place of the downtown library’s parking lot A, front courtyard and Roselli Park. Meetings next month will focus on the other two city-owned parcels that have been prioritized by the City Council for conversion to parks: the parking lot behind City Hall and Redwood Creek.
“We looked at downtown parcels for conversion to parks. Why? We have about 5,000 new residents in our downtown, and through community outreach we heard from a lot of residents that we need more green space and park spaces in our downtown,” Parks and Recreation Director Chris Beth said at the April 11 event.
The urban parks and gathering spaces discussed during the meeting are located in San Francisco and throughout the country.
Burnham’s firm created Proxy, a parking lot-turned outdoor events venue adjacent to Patricia’s Green Park in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood. Food and drink businesses are housed in repurposed shipping containers, including Smitten Ice Cream, and the vendors own their containers, which can be easily relocated when necessary.
“We started with food because that creates community,” Burnham said, adding that the space is active both during the day and at night. There is also an outdoor beer garden, a screen for movie nights that was obtained via crowdfunding, restrooms, exercise equipment and artistic patterning on the asphalt ground doubles as instructions for fitness classes.
The space is regularly used for free events, including concerts, film festivals and block parties. Public art installations have come and gone through the years and revenue from corporate pop-ups help fund the space’s programming costs.
“We realized that what we were doing is an experiment in public space and that we were almost teaching people how to be together again. We’re all on our devices, [in] our cars and we can lead isolated lives and [Proxy] was very much about bringing people together,” Burnham said.
Lipsett spoke of a project called the Market Street Prototyping Festival that transformed miles of San Francisco’s Market Street into a “living museum,” featuring exhibits designed by the community, students, designers and grassroots organizers. One exhibit was a mini library that passersby could walk through and borrow books from and another featured a “mobile craft module” with interactive installations that the public could alter and build upon.
“[The project] reimagined what public space can be and took this radical idea that sidewalks don’t just have to be for walking on, that there is a much better and higher use for them and that’s one in which people can interact with each other, with art, or as one organizer of the event said ‘a way of creating the opposite of social isolation,” Lipsett said, adding that the three-day event led to a 33 percent increase in pedestrian traffic on Market Street and a 375 percent increase in lingering. “An increase in lingering led to a huge increase in sales [at a nearby food hall] so there’s all these positive cascade benefits of having the sidewalk turned into this laboratory and creating unusual uses.”
In 2013, Lipsett’s organization Freespace acquired a vacant building and turned it into a public arts center that hosted multiple events a day. Local artists painted murals on the outside of the building, five shipping containers were transported on site — each containing a makerspace with 3D printers — and a temporary garden created outside was popular with local children.
“It became an explosion of human interaction and gathering in the best possible way and giving people a way to rethink what could be done with this space,” Lipsett said.
One of the projects Stone presented entailed the creation of an outdoor music venue in Baltimore located in the middle of African-American and Korean-American neighborhoods that didn’t always get along with each other, he said.
A simple stage was erected, and everything needed to run an event — cables, a generator, tables and chairs — is stored in an onsite-shipping container. Big Freedia from New Orleans and other artists from around the area and the nation have performed at concerts there.
Stone said the space was used for numerous community events, including dance parties, yoga and paint parties, and after the Baltimore protests of 2015, Korean-Americans and African-Americans came together to produce an events series at the site.
Two of Redwood City’s downtown parks plans are located on parking lots and the loss of parking has been a concern for some.
Burnham said he also faced some pushback about the loss of parking when designing Proxy, but residents were able to adjust in part because the site was developed incrementally.
Lipsett suggested free shuttles as solutions to lost parking. And while each of the speakers agreed that parking should be preserved for seniors and those with disabilities, they also seemed to agree that parking needs are and should change.
“At the end of the day, it’s really about what one values,” Stone said. “Does one value places to recreate and bring one’s youth or does one value a place to leave a privately owned automobile that just sits there and occupies publicly owned space a good portion of the time?”
Some residents are also concerned about homeless populations gathering at or trashing future downtown parks sites. Burnham said the Proxy site was popular with drug dealers before it existed and they gradually left as more and more people frequented the site during both the day and at night.
Burnham also suggested that on-site vendors are especially motivated to maintain and monitor the public space on which they do business. Stone suggested involving the immediate neighbors as watchdogs and Lipsett said other cities partner with nonprofits to manage and maintain public spaces.
Follow-up events will occur on May 6 and May 23 at the Fox Forum. The former is called “Park vs. Parking: Exploring What’s Possible Behind City Hall” and the latter is “Redwood Creek: Embracing a Forgotten Shoreline.”
(650) 344-5200 ext. 102