Hayes Valley Deserves Both Parks and Housing

Ben Zotto
5 min readJul 22, 2019

San Francisco is poised to take away one of the best small public spaces in the city. They shouldn't.

If you’ve lived in or visited Hayes Valley in the last decade, you’ll be familiar with the scene in the photo — a popular asphalt plaza at the corner of Hayes and Octavia, containing several vendors and host to frequent outdoor events. It’s become an integral part of the “living room” of the neighborhood. But everything in the photo including the open space itself is going to disappear in a year and a half.

What is PROXY?

The public space in the middle of Hayes Valley has three distinct parts to it. The central bit with grass, rotating sculpture, and fixed picnic tables is Patricia’s Green, a city park.

PROXY (also known as “parcel K”) next to Patricia’s Green.

Adjacent to Patricia’s Green are two parcels of land that are also owned by the city but are not permanent parks.

PROXY is the larger open area, adjacent to Hayes St, seen in the photo above. (The “Biergarten” occupies the bulk of the other, smaller area.) PROXY is about a quarter of an acre in size.

PROXY and Biergarten were not intended to be permanent uses of those parcels of land; they are on a long term lease from the city, which is ending very soon.

I thought PROXY was part of the park! Why is it going away?

It feels like part of the park, but it is not. It is one of the former Central Freeway rights-of-way, and to the city, it’s still just a vacant lot named “Parcel K”. It is slated for housing development, one piece of a complex plan dating back 20 years. Because the housing designated for that site is fully below-market-rate, the city must essentially underwrite the construction, plans for which have thus taken some time to put together. The current setup, named PROXY, was designed to be a temporary use of a then-empty lot, and has been a fixture for almost ten years. But the project is now moving forward, and the city is planning to issue an RFP (“request for proposals”) to developers in the next few months. Parcel K (currently PROXY) will be permanently replaced by a few dozen housing units. (More on the housing piece in a moment.)

PROXY is really, really good. It should be refined, not tossed away.

It is exceptionally difficult for city planners anywhere to deliberately create successful urban open spaces. Cities (including San Francisco) are littered with parks that are relatively underused, and open plazas are notoriously hard to get right. Witness Embarcadero Plaza’s vast emptiness, or McCoppin Hub Plaza’s now-permanent fenced closure.

PROXY, on the other hand, is small but mighty. Occupying only a quarter of an acre (and currently activating not even the full area), it sees constant productive use during daytimes and evenings. Along with Patricia’s Green, it’s part of the vibrant living room of the neighborhood; an inviting space that draws in pedestrians from Hayes and Octavia. PROXY hosts food, drink, hang-out space, fitness classes, movie nights, food trucks, and other events. It meets all the criteria of a successful public space. That San Francisco stumbled into such magic by accident is a minor miracle.

Because those amenities were designed to be temporary, they aren’t even optimal uses of the area. Imagine what could be done with a longer-term rethinking knowing what we already do about what residents and visitors are coming to the area for.

More housing is good, though, right?

Absolutely, and this is important to be clear about. We can have (and should demand) both housing and beloved parks. San Francisco is in the midst of a housing supply emergency. Daring and creative solutions to add housing across the board are required. Building a few dozen BMR units on Parcel K is not nothing, but the consequence of doing so is permanently amputating one of the most successful urban spaces in the city.

We could take these very same BMR units and distribute them among the other pending projects along Octavia Boulevard, for example. The city already owns all the vacant parcels, and the city also has the magic rezoning wand! We could even come up with a solution that combines multiple parcels to create some plaza space as well as some housing. Hayes Valley has been, and should continue to be, welcoming of new housing of all varieties. There’s simply no need to accept a false narrative of scarcity that says you have to like it when vibrant parks disappear just because we were not willing to be creative.

It’s time to re-evaluate the future of Parcel K.

As we add more residents, the value of centrally-located public space in the neighborhood only increases. Parcel K is a small piece of land earmarked for a modicum of development a long time ago, before it was clear how successful taking down the freeway would be for the area, and before anyone guessed how good PROXY could end up being. Also before the specifics of the housing crisis became as clear as they are now.

PROXY is going to disappear simply because that was the plan cooked up a long time ago, not because it’s necessarily the best outcome for the future of the neighborhood and city.

It’s time to look again at what we’ve created, and what we need in the neighborhood, and find a win-win solution that gets us the housing and keeps the park.

Can I do anything about this?

Yes, and if you’re so inclined, you should do so rather urgently.

If you live in Hayes Valley or elsewhere in District 5, call or email our Supervisor, Dean Preston. Housing is (rightly) his priority, so if you want to keep PROXY in place in some form, let him know that you support a creative solution that includes housing. [this was updated Jan 2020 with the new Supervisor’s info]

Then contact Mayor Breed’s office. Mayor Breed was formerly the supervisor of District 5, and was responsible for extending PROXY’s lease in 2015.

If you’re a San Franciscan outside the district, contact your own supervisor.

Parcel K in 1961 with the Central Freeway looming above, and now. Old photo via San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.