With plenty of vacant land and blocks of underdeveloped warehouses, the East Village district of downtown San Diego has the makings of the next great neighborhood. Situated between the barhopper-thronged lanes of the Gaslamp quarter and the arty dive scene of Golden Hill, the East Village is bursting with location but dwindling on population. Lately, though, the neighborhood has been showing signs of growth. A new central library by Rob Quigley opened in September, a recently completed mixed-use residential-and-retail hub by Carrier Johnson is now leasing, and two more residential projects are slated to open in 2015.
But the gears of traditional development aren't turning everywhere they could, says Jason Grauten, a recent graduate of the NewSchool for Architecture + Design in San Diego, which is located in the East Village. "People live here, but everyone leaves to work somewhere else," he says. "You need day activity."
The San Diego collaborative Design TEMPO wants to transform a vacant city-owned lot in the East Village neighborhood into a pedestrian-friendly mini-mecca for food trucks, retail boxes in retrofitted shipping containers, and a 6,000-square-foot beer garden.
To spark pedestrian street life in this formerly industrial part of town, Grauten and his partners at the collaborative Design TEMPO have launched a Kickstarter campaign to transform a vacant city-owned lot into a free-for-all public space featuring shipping-container retail, a beer garden, food trucks, a dog run, a movie screen, movable furniture, and green space. Dubbed RAD LAB—for Research Architecture and Development Laboratory—the project takes after Envelope A+D's popular Proxy development in San Francisco's Hayes Valley (and, to a lesser extent, London's shipping-container mall, Boxpark Shoreditch).
Design TEMPO (whose members include Philip Auchettl, David Loewenstein, and Adam Jubela) is building on a great precedent. Over the summer, San Francisco extended Proxy's lease to 2021—eight years beyond the temporary project's initial expiration date. But when Proxy opened in 2011, Hayes Valley already had the very advantages that the East Village needs to nurture: namely, plenty of pedestrian street life, a mix of uses, and a population that prefers to conduct its business from the coffee line. Is RAD LAB putting the food cart before the horse, as it were?
Design TEMPO is betting no. The NewSchool, which is across the street from the RAD LAB site, offers one already captive population. "We went to grad school for three years next door to this lot," says Grauten. "Every day at lunch we would go, 'Where do we want to go to lunch?' And we'd debate for 30 minutes because there was no where to go."
The designers hope to make the area attractive for office tenants as well as the coming influx of residents. "There are a lot of empty lots of land with tons of potential for development, and development in the right way," he says. "With all these apartments going up, we want to create this organism that's alive, at all times of the day."
Design TEMPO holds a two-year lease on the lot, with the option to renew for one more year. If they meet their funding goal of $60,000 by Sunday, October 13, they'll have the all-important first round of cash to pay for site improvements, infrastructure, and permitting. Grauten points out that 90 percent of RAD LAB's total costs are recoupable—everything but utilities and underground footings, basically. For a fraction of the project's initial investment, the designers could pack up and move the lab to the next depressed site in three years. Or five or ten years, if all goes well.
Renderings courtesy Design TEMPO