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Pop-Up Placemaking: SPARC-It-Place


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Aerial Concept Sketch of SPARC-It-Place. Image: David Baker Architects

by Brad Leibin, AIA, DBA Associate

 

To learn more about SPARC-It-Place, click here.   

The pop-up phenomenon continues to thrive, bringing vitality to urban areas with temporary retail shops, restaurants, and events in unused or underused spaces.

We’ve been excited to work on an unusual interim use for a vacant lot: a community market, event space, and small business incubator called SPARC-It-Place that will tie-in directly to the permanent affordable housing that we are also designing for the site.

Aerial context site diagram. Image: David Baker Architects

It started in 2015, after the nonprofit community development organization East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC) purchased a site on San Pablo Avenue in West Oakland. EBALDC develops affordable housing; creates community-serving commercial space; and provides employment support, housing stability, and financial services to those in need.

Their ultimate plan for this site is to build a new mixed-use affordable housing development with community services on the ground floor. The design of that project is currently in the works, a collaboration between EBALDC and DBA. The site is next door to another EBALDC developement, the California Hotel, a 1929 former hotel that they renovated in 2014 to provide 137 affordable units plus ground-floor community and commercial spaces.

View from across San Pablo Avenue of proposed future affordable housing development on-site, also designed by David Baker Architects. Image: David Baker Architects

But designing and constructing affordable housing in California is a lengthy process—it would be a couple of years before groundbreaking began. So for the interim, EBALDC decided to use the empty site to host a pop-up outdoor market and community space. The idea was that by bringing in food and retail vendors, performances, art installations, and community activities on a regular basis, SPARC-It-Place would enliven this stretch of San Pablo Avenue, which has been an unfortunate victim of blight.

In fact, the site of SPARC-It-Place has been vacant for as long as local residents can remember, functioning most recently as a liquor store parking lot. The neighborhood is also sorely lacking in safe community open space, and EBALDC saw an opportunity to change that. EBALDC is not just about developing affordable housing; the organization has a larger mission to focus on the interconnected social, environmental, and economic factors to improve health and wellness in the communities it serves.

Following a SPUR panel discussion I participated in with EBALDC staff, they asked us to design SPARC-It-Place. DBA_LAB, our in-house research and experimentation studio, was tasked with designing a robust temporary space that would provide outdoor vendor stalls for local start-up businesses to share and sell products and would also include a performance stage, play zone, outdoor eating area, and space for several community art installations.

View Corridor. Image: David Baker Architects

Site Circulation. Image: David Baker Architects

To protect the performance area from the noise of San Pablo Avenue and the nearby freeway overpass, we tucked the stage into the back of the site. We created a view corridor to the stage and lined it with market stalls.

We wanted to make sure SPARC-It-Place was distinct from Proxy, its San Francisco counterpart. Proxy is a temporary food/art/culture destination on two blocks of Octavia Boulevard, also on land earmarked for development. While it’s similar, it has a hipper San Francisco vibe. We wanted SPARC-It-Place to feel more like Oakland—more accessible, less finely polished.

We used simple, inexpensive, modular components that would keep costs down and also make it easy for EBALDC to disassemble the site, store it, and reassemble it on a new site should they so choose. For the vendor stalls, we used construction scaffolding. For the seating/play elements, we used shipping pallets. The planters are made of salvaged redwood. To create seating for the stage, we acquired “corn cribs”—sturdy wooden stacks that were left over from the modular construction process on one of our other projects, Union Flats.

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Pallet seating and garden beds were built by volunteers. Image: David Baker Architects

To enliven the site, we relied on ample planting and color. We worked with the graphic design firm Public Design to create vibrantly colored graphics on scrim panels affixed to the vendor stalls. Facing San Pablo Avenue, a 20-foot scrimmed scaffolding element features the SPARC-It-Place logo. It’s backlit during evening events to create a glowing, “lantern” effect visible from the street and from the nearby freeway overpass.

Backlit lantern element from San Pablo Avenue, with California Hotel in background. Image: David Baker Architects

Residents living nearby pitched in. They helped up come up with the program for the site during the early stages and, during construction, local volunteers painted various elements of the design and planted shrubs in all of the planters. This helped reduce construction costs as well as giving residents a sense of connection to the place.

Local youth construction volunteers. Image: EBALDC

There are some challenges to designing temporary structures. For example, we wanted to place a shipping container on the site to house art classes or similar events for community members, with perhaps some retail space facing the street during events. However, Oakland’s building department said we would have to fireproof the container and build it on footings. That turned out to be prohibitively expensive. Pop-up projects like this run into these kinds of challenges a lot—most building codes don’t yet have the flexibility to accommodate temporary uses.

 

Evening performance by a local artist. Image: MooD-ology Photography/Curtis Jermany

SPARC-It-Place opened in November of 2016. Initially, events were held in the evenings on the first Friday of each month; more recently, they’ve moved to the first Saturday, during the day. The mix of vendors is eclectic: one provides massages, another sells unusual teas, another sells books.

In addition to bringing in vendors and performers, EBALDC provides free food to everyone who attends. Food really helps draw people in. When people come to the events, they have to sign in in order to get a food ticket, which puts them on the mailing list.

Local vendor. Image: MooD-ology Photography/Curtis Jermany

SPARC-It-Place brings life to a piece of land that was an eyesore for a long time. Even when events aren’t happening there, it adds landscaping and color to the streetscape. The events that I’ve been to have been well-attended. And the community members are glad it’s there.

Family crafts at Sparc-It-Place. Image: MooD-ology Photography/Curtis Jermany

Children enjoying the Family Playground, designed and created with the help of community volunteers. Image: MooD-ology Photography/Curtis Jermany

Brad Leibin AIA is an Associate at DBA and the project architect for 34th and San Pablo Affordable Housing. You can contact Brad at bradleibin@dbarchitect.com.

San Pablo Avenue streetscape. Image: David Baker Architects

One of the things I am especially pleased by is the lack of vandalism. These are temporary structures. Any piece of SPARC-It-Place could be disassembled or stolen. But that hasn’t happened. Before we completed the project, every time we visited the site, we’d see graffiti. But none of the scaffolding or scrims have been tagged yet. If you create an environment that shows a certain level of care, people respect that.

Aerial Concept Sketch of SPARC-It-Place. Image: David Baker Architects

Aerial context site diagram. Image: David Baker Architects

View Corridor. Image: David Baker Architects

Site Circulation. Image: David Baker Architects

View from across San Pablo Avenue of proposed future affordable housing development on-site, also designed by David Baker Architects. Image: David Baker Architects

Evening performance by a local artist. Image: MooD-ology Photography/Curtis Jermany

Children enjoying the Family Playground, designed and created with the help of community volunteers. Image: MooD-ology Photography/Curtis Jermany

Pallet seating and garden beds were built by volunteers. Image: David Baker Architects

Backlit lantern element from San Pablo Avenue, with California Hotel in background. Image: David Baker Architects

Local youth construction volunteers. Image: EBALDC

Local vendor. Image: MooD-ology Photography/Curtis Jermany

Family crafts at Sparc-It-Place. Image: MooD-ology Photography/Curtis Jermany

San Pablo Avenue streetscape. Image: David Baker Architects