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Mar 15, 2011 7 min read


Hooking up to the crane. All photos by Blair Sneddon Photography.
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By Daisy Chow, tablehopper editorial assistant.

For years, a number of city-owned lots along the path of the former Central Freeway in Hayes Valley have languished behind chain-link fences and stalled development plans. Envelope Architecture + Design’s PROXY project will put two of those lots to use as a temporary, mixed-use commercial/community center, with businesses setting up shop in remodeled shipping containers. Look for an April 1st opening (no joke) or thereabouts for Smitten Ice Cream, to be followed by Ritual Coffee Roasters, Biergarten by Suppenküche, 4505 Meats, and Pizzeria Delfina, though not all at once. Hardhat columnist Erin Archuleta gathered details about Proxy from Douglas Burnham, principal and founder of the Oakland-based Envelope.

The two-block Proxy complex will be built out of sturdy yet ultimately mobile shipping containers, modified, outfitted, and some stacked to accommodate the above-mentioned restaurants and food vendors, plus retail shops, an art gallery, and communal spaces. Located on the eastern side of Octavia, between Fell and Hayes, Proxy aims to be an urban playground of sorts, the kind of place where commerce and community will intersect and thrive together, even if only for the three or four years the city has agreed to lease the lots.

The pop-up art gallery will feature a different, local curator’s or artist’s exhibition each quarter over 13 quarters. The space for retail vendors will be containers that are very open, literally opening up to the street with 20-foot-long roll up doors and overhanging roof elements that will have customers feeling like they’re inside and outside. (The used shipping containers are cut in half from their original 40-foot length to make them more portable.)

When it’s fully completed, Proxy will remain in a state of flux with a space for rotating, temporary food vendors—like visiting chefs, or young chefs who are starting out on their own—to come in and open a short-term location, be it for one night, a weekend, or a couple of weeks. It’s part of what Douglas calls the “flexible urbanism” that Proxy represents.

They aren’t hiding the look of the shipping containers, but expect to see a lot of glass, a move that Douglas thinks will attenuate the “macho” exteriors of the containers while at the same time reducing the solid mass of the containers down to the steel frames. Glass also allows passersby a view into the workings of each business.

Because the containers are made of steel, which as a building material acts to intensify heat and cold, all the interiors will be lined with a shallow thickness of wood to form a cavity with closed cell insulation. This will create a thermal break so the containers are not hot boxes in the summer and freezer boxes in the winter with unbearable temperature swings.

After navigating a maze of permits and inspections and having to meet the rigors of a building code designed for more permanent buildings of say, 25 to 100 years, rain and other complications continued to slow down construction progress, with groundwork finally starting January 19th (the Board of Supervisors had voted to grant the lease in September 2009). As of Tuesday March 1st, the first of the remodeled shipping containers were placed atop their concrete slabs by crane.

Smitten by ice cream.

Those first two containers belong to Smitten Ice Cream, slated to be the first business to move into the Proxy complex. Robyn Sue Goldman started Smitten four years ago with an idea for a liquid nitrogen ice cream machine, then two years later took her concept to the streets on a Radio Flyer wagon. Popularity followed instantly. Joined by pastry chef/recipe developer Robyn Lyn Lenzi, and lawyer-turned-“chef de shoppe” Andrew Shaw, the Robyn Sue and the Smitten team will make scoops to order from scratch. Yeah, you heard that right, ice cream, made to order, from scratch—with none of the unpronounceable ingredients in commercial products that muddle up the true flavor of ice cream.

Smitten’s concept for Proxy is to have a walk-up ice cream bar with four Kelvins in place (yes, the ice cream machines have a name) so they can offer four flavors at once, flavors that will change weekly depending on the fruits and vegetables that are fresh, local, and seasonal at the moment. Customers will get some customization choices like hot pepper or cinnamon with flavors like vanilla or chocolate, but other carefully fine-tuned, specialty flavors will be offered only as intended, such as Meyer lemon gingersnap or vanilla quince with nut streusel. In keeping with the community-minded Proxy itself, Smitten is open to flavor ideas from the community and have a suggestion box on their website. If your flavor gets made, there may be some free ice cream in your future.

The shop will feature the stainless steel of the Kelvins and the counters, balanced by warm wood and lots of glass for transparency (floor-to-ceiling on one side). The look will be very clean and sophisticated, yet have the warmth and old-world charm that you want in an ice cream shop. Though the space inside the containers will be employee only, Smitten will have a 12-foot by 28-foot outdoor space for hanging out and enjoying your made-to-order scoop. (It can also be rented out. Imagine serving 4-flavor ice cream flights for your next birthday party—ice, ice, baby.) And don’t sweat the weather, there are plans to tent the space.

Before they had heard about Proxy, Smitten was already looking in Hayes Valley, and just as they were about to give up on finding affordable real estate in neighborhood, Matt Cohen (of the SF Cart Project and Off the Grid) introduced them to Douglas. Robyn Sue and Robyn Lyn carted Kelvin over to Envelope, and a few scoops of ice cream later, they were in. But not so fast—they also worked hard to get approvals from the neighborhood, local merchants, the fire department, and what Robyn Sue said felt like “a million agencies.” Nevertheless, the Smitten team is excited to be part of a project and a neighborhood that is open to their combination of artisan-quality product made with cutting-edge technology.

A family-friendly beer garden.

Though not new to the neighborhood, Hayes Valley mainstay Suppenküche is just as much a natural fit in the Proxy project as Smitten. Suppenküche general manager/partner Aaron Hulme shared more about their upcoming Biergarten project that will occupy about 80% of the lot between Linden and Fell with four shipping containers, from which they will serve German food (like a simplified version of the Suppenküche menu) and beer in a family-friendly atmosphere.

The Biergarten concept was inspired by the ubiquitous beer gardens found in breweries and outdoor spaces throughout Germany—informal places where friends and families can eat, relax, and spend time together outside. The Proxy project is a dream location for Biergarten; it’s the outdoor patio they always wanted to have at Suppenküche but couldn’t. True to the outdoor theme, they want to put in a lot of greenery, maybe have some trees (they’re hoping for a shady California buckeye), and possibly even install a green roof on top of their shipping containers for an herb garden.

Biergarten plans to serve an outdoor-friendly take on the Suppenküche menu, nothing extravagant, grilled meats, sausages, fish, all things can be eaten comfortably outside, with salads and vegetarian options too. They want to stay open to more experimentation than at Suppenküche but within the overall realm of German cuisine. As for beer, they will have about five on tap and more by bottle. All the seating will be outside at re-used tables from a beer garden in Bavaria. Diners will have protection from rain and elements too.

Because their liquor license requires a 10pm closing time, Aaron says they will play the hours by ear to begin with, serving lunch and staying open into the afternoon because, hey, having a beer on a weekday in the afternoon should be a normal thing.

In line with the philosophy of locally-owned and slow-food-oriented food vendors, Ritual Coffee Roasters, 4505 Meats, and Pizzeria Delfina will also join the complex, though the timelines for the latter two are further out. Delfina’s location will include a wood-fired oven, and Ryan Farr of 4505 has plans to run an outdoor cooking and grilling station.

Though the project was originally planned for just a few years, perhaps Proxy will stick around longer since Governor Jerry Brown’s recent proposal to eliminate funding for redevelopment agencies would likely squash any plans to move forward with the affordable housing originally intended for the lots. Douglas acknowledges the experimental and temporary nature of Proxy, noting that the food vendors are paying for the construction of their own containers, so they can simply disconnect the utility hookups and move elsewhere with “nothing going into the waste stream.” So whenever it comes time to pack up, they can take everything and the kitchen sink.

Hooking up to the crane. All photos by Blair Sneddon Photography.

Ready for lift-off.
Flight of the shipping container.
Coming down for landing.
The crew makes sure everything is in place.
View of Smitten’s interior.
Another view of Smitten’s interior. All photos by Blair Sneddon Photography.
Artist rendering of Proxy project at night, from Envelope A+D.
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