Monday, February 26, 2018

Shipping Container Pop-ups: Best Practice or Best Forgotten?

Dan McCombie is a Research Associate at Larisa Ortiz Associates

I caught myself typing this into my google machine the other day:

“Are shipping containers still cool?”

This question has been on my mind as of late, given that the phenomenon of turning shipping containers into pop-ups for retail, exhibition space, offices, and even tiny homes, has been going on for quite some time now. Many people are no doubt familiar with the well renowned downtown Container Park in Las Vegas, constructed in 2013 as part of a huge reinvestment package spurred by the relocation of online retailer Zappos to the neighborhood. And I personally remember when back in 2011 my hometown of Christchurch (NZ) had its central city devastated by earthquake, spurring the city to create Re:Start to quickly breathe life back into the CBD. Are people still doing this? Is it still perceived as both a savvy marketing scheme and opportunity to catalyze revitalization? Or is the public starting to experience container-fatigue?

What’s the problem with containers?

Admittedly, there is a part of me that sometimes looks upon containers with disdain simply because they are so ubiquitous now. But I stumbled upon this quote from an article by John King in an article he wrote for, wherein he waxes on the creation of “Proxy,” another container park constructed in 2011 in the Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco:

“This isn’t about architecture so much as urban place making: you’re less aware of the structures than of the surroundings. The containers aren’t treated as sculptural elements, as is the case recently in other international cities. They’re content to add layers to the landscape, enlarging the Hayes Valley experience without making a fuss.”

Which I interpret to mean: “Calm down. Forget about the medium and consider the effect.”

And rightly so. I actually visited Proxy when I was last in San Francisco, when a couple of friends brought me to the beer garden there (Biergarten). Recalling that visit and doing some background research, I learned that Proxy was exactly as the name describes—a temporary placeholder until more permanent development could take place, much like Re:Start in Christchurch. The site on Octavia Street was originally an underutilized parking lot that the city sought to redevelop for affordable housing. However, the original plan was tabled with the advent of the economic recession. Rather than let the site lay vacant and an eyesore on the neighborhood, the city and the Mayor’s office bid the site out for a temporary and less costly installation, to which the designer/developer/operator Envelope A+D responded with their plan for a “flexible environment of food, art, culture, and retail within renovated shipping containers.” 

Although city codes lacked precedent for a “temporary” retail operation lasting more than 90 days (the project is due to expire in 2020), stakeholders were able to negotiate an agreement such that project became a reality. Now retail tenants include a mix of established brands and start-ups taking their first incremental step towards brick and mortars. In addition to retail offerings, the project hosts film screenings, art installations, and serves as a performance/event space creating a bonafide neighborhood gathering place.   

What have container parks like Proxy meant for retail?

Proxy bucks the trend in retail in the sense that in spite of its positive public reception and the relative success of its tenants, it plans to shutter in a couple of years. Why remove something that seems to be a success? Because it was always designed to be a stop-gap and of course the need to grow the supply of affordable housing in the Bay Area is still an acute need. But the lessons remain. What Proxy did well was create density in a vacant space. It was consciously conceived as a means to revitalize a previously blighted area, a parking lot that had also been the former site of a freeway. There were other things Proxy did well—curating the mix of tenants in a meaningful way and targeting operators that could feasibly make the jump to brick and mortars after a period of incubation. I also appreciate that the designers consciously eschewed the term “pop-up.” In a quote from Douglas Burnham, founder of Envelope A+D:

“We specifically don’t use the word ‘pop-up’ because it doesn’t really mean anything to us anymore…We think that a thoughtful insertion of compelling temporary uses can be an effective strategy to bring vibrancy to languishing parts of the city. There’s nothing trendy or faddish about this.”

Admittedly, one could argue it is a bit faddish to treat “pop-up” as a pejorative term. But I think this gets back to my main takeaway. Before you critique something for its popularity, it’s important to consider if and why it actually has staying power.

So…do containers have staying power?

As far as I’ve been able to tell, the containerization of our lives continues unabated. Large brands like Budlight, DSW, Puma, HBO, and HP are increasingly demanding container pop-ups for experiential retailing strategies while a growing number of companies are supplying both specialized and turnkey options. They range from Co-Working in a Box’s “PopBox”, Britten’s “BoxPop”, and Vacant’s mobile container truck, each providing a range of design and consultative services to help get businesses off the ground and engage customers in places they didn’t expect.

And let’s not miss the fact that a whole segment of companies have an identical model for indoor pop-ups. The shopping mall giant Macerich’s Pop-Up EXP program provides 100-300 SF of space with micro leases, and modular components. The difference here is we’re not talking about containers. Again—this suggests a larger trend with momentum and that the medium (containers) is really beside the point.

What’s on the horizon?

Some forward-thinking folks have gone so far as to envision containers as outparcels–parking lot satellites to larger retailers located inside shopping malls. For example, perhaps a Nordstrom anchoring a mall uses a container in the parking lot as a small fulfillment center so customers have the convenience of picking up their order on the fly without the full commitment of going inside. It’s no stretch of the imagination given the way e-commerce has pushed the industry towards more rapid and flexible retail with just-in-time delivery schedules. And what with autonomous vehicles ahead, these trends will surely continue into the foreseeable future.

Personally, I’m excited to see pop-ups and container villages keep building off of what has worked in the past. Invest Atlanta, the City of Atlanta’s Development Authority, approved $550K in funding to create an “MLK Innovation Village” built out of shipping containers in an empty parking lot adjacent to the H.E. Holmes MARTA station. The village will include an outdoor gathering space, retail, and at least nine offices with the intent that this “semi-temporary” project will be a catalyst for future transit oriented development in the area. It’s the same model as Proxy and Re:Start, but with a creative transit component that could give it possibly massive multiplier effects.

Which is all to say, I think we still have a lot of containers coming our way in the future.

And that’s quite alright with me.

Puma City
 Multiple Global Ports
Christchurch, NZ

Hayes Valley neighborhood of SF

Container Park
Downtown Las Vegas 

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