The brand new Quartyard pop-up is a sign of changing attitudes in what has been a more traditional planning culture.

Whenever David Loewenstein used to walk past the fenced-off, city-owned lot that's catty corner from where he attended architecture school, he'd think: "Man, what is going on here? Are they ever going to do something with this thing?"

That was a few years ago, in San Diego's East Village, a once-blighted neighborhood where bearded guys on bikes were appearing on the streets, and where condos were starting to break up the blocks of vacant warehouses.

For their thesis project, which they delivered in early 2013, Loewenstein and three classmates at the New School of Architecture and Design came up with a proposal: turn that dead lot into a lively hub. Attract retail tenants to attract people.

A rendering of the Quartyard, set to open in January 2015 (RAD Lab)

One challenge was that the city did, in fact, have long-term plans for the lot, so whatever they proposed had to be temporary. Their solution was to use upcycled shipping containers. A professor loved the idea. The city, led by three very different mayors since the students graduated in 2013, also got on board.

Last fall, the team—now called RAD Lab—raised $60,000 through Kickstarter. That money was useful, but proving to the city and investors that San Diegans were excited about the idea was even more valuable, Loewenstein said; the project has since received another $450,000 from a few investors.

Next month, RAD Lab will hold a soft opening for the boxy urban playground it named the Quartyard. (Beer will be sold by the quart.) Located at Park and Market Streets, the Quartyard will feature a café, beer garden, dog park, event space, farmer's market, and a weekly food truck gathering. The official launch will be in January 2015.

The project had a quick build, going from the seed of an idea to groundbreaking in little more than a year, and fittingly, has a short life expectancy. Its lease is for two years, extendable yearly after that.

"Essentially, the Quartyard is a placeholder for future development," Loewenstein says. If a building goes up, the Quartyard comes down (or moves). If other development gets delayed, the Quartyard might hang on.

Richard Seges of Civic San Diego, an urban development agency that worked with RAD Lab to bring the Quartyard to fruition, said the space will eventually become a mixed-use project that will include affordable housing. That groundbreaking is anticipated for two years from now, he said.

The project's inherent fleetingness is, in part, what sold city officials. "Communities get kind of scared when they have this idea that you're going to build something that's experimental," and that's especially true of San Diego, Loewenstein says. Cities like Portland and San Francisco are more comfortable with taking planning risks, he adds. "I think San Diego is trying to transition into being the kind of world-class destination that they claim it is."

The city and its former planning director, Bill Fulton, parted ways this summer. Fulton, now at Rice University, agrees that San Diego's planning ethos hasn't always been progressive.

"There's a very conservative culture, which is reflected as a cautious approach on the part of the city," he says. "I mean culturally conservative, in the sense that ... the people that live in San Diego and the power structure are often not at the cutting edge of national trends." The city's financial crisis and political instability have contributed to this.

With temporary, tactical projects like the Quartyard, it took a while for the city to understand how to make them work, given the existing code, but "eventually they got there."

RAD Lab partners, from left: Adam Jubela, David Loewenstein,
Jason Grauten, Philip Auchettl (RAD Lab)

Fulton calls the Quartyard a success story that reveals a changing mentality. "They [RAD Lab] had this seemingly crazy idea that you could build a temporary development project out of containers. Everyone assumed that that was not possible. And they're doing it."

The Quartyard joins another placeholder hang-out in East Village, the SILO in Makers Quarter. "In the past, if there was a piece of property that was not likely to be developed anytime soon, it would sit there or it would be a parking lot," Fulton says. "Now you see that East Village is really at the cutting edge of this nationally, as far as I can tell."

Pop-ups hold appeal for more cautious cities because they allow for experimentation without a long-term commitment, and can stimulate business, too. San Diego's first parklet opened last year, in front of one of the city's more chic retail fronts, an Italian-style coffee roaster and café. The city has since approved or built at least one more, along with a few temporary installations.

Amid this tiptoe rather than gallop, Quartyard is positioning San Diego as a regional leader. (Sacramento's planners recently rejected a shipping container biergarten, saying the idea needed "a little more refinement.")

Loewenstein and his partners want to export the concept to other cities. Come December, that once-empty lot will become the site of a two-way test: San Diego will get to see how it likes the pop-up, but Quartyard will also get see how it likes San Diego.

Correction: Sacramento's planners rejected initial designs of the shipping-container Der Biergarten. A version of the project that masks the containers has since been built and is now up and running.

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