Reimagining (Tiny) Vacant Lots

Through grants for public artwork and landscaping, Portola brings new life to empty land near the highway.

In between the city’s bustling freeways and the houses and businesses that line them, one can find small, oddly shaped vacant lots. Most of the time, they’re filled with patches of weeds, dumped appliances, and clumps of trash — but not so in the former “garden district” of San Francisco. Thanks to a collaboration between the Community Challenge Grant and the Portola Urban Greening Committee, the neighborhood has slowly reclaimed these plots.

The first to be tackled was in 2014 at the end of Burrows Street, a short block sandwiched between San Bruno Avenue and Highway 101. The Burrows Pocket Park, as it’s now known, sits in front of Four Barrel Coffee and offers Portola residents a tiered, landscaped refuge from the hustle and bustle. With a tiny, arched wooden bridge, a free library, a mural and several places to sit, it is a far cry from the bleak dead end street it used to be. And the neighborhood is already gunning for an expansion. Last week, The Greenhouse Project and the Portola Urban Greening Committee led a community open house to gather ideas on what to do with a second Caltrans lot adjacent to the park, which would offer a welcome extension.

“I sit up there and look out on that fennel patch everyday,” says Lucia Pohlman of The Greenhouse Project, whose office above Four Barrel overlooks the park. “So many people come to the coffee shop, and while there are some places to sit, there’s not a huge community gathering space right on San Bruno Avenue that feels welcoming for everyone — and isn’t a commercial space.”

Caltrans lots, Pohlman believes, could offer a solution. She led last week’s open house, which she said was really a space for the community to express their desires for the space.

“Is this going to be full of hammocks? Or a public artwork rotation? Or are you going to work out here? What do you really want to see?” she asks.

Thinking outside the box with these vacant lots has revealed endless potential. “The opportunity of community groups to take on Caltrans land in San Francisco is huge,” Pohlman says. “There’s actually land that we can adopt,” she adds, “and we [in Portola] are particularly fortunate that we’re bound on two sides by freeways.”

Check out more stories from our Portola issue:
Neon Revival: Portola’s Avenue Theater Returns
After a quarter million dollars in grants and community fundraising, the neon sign at Avenue Theater will finally be turned back on.
Cutty Bang: The Real San Francisco Treat
It’s a DIY alcohol adventure with a hip-hop sensibility.
Eating Your Way Down San Bruno Avenue
From Four Barrel to loco moco, the Portola’s commercial strip is extremely diverse.
Portola Has the Coolest Librarian in San Francisco
You can’t be more dedicated to the kids than Nicole Termini Germain
Urban Agriculture or More Housing?
One block of greenhouses is all that remains of Portola’s garden industry, and its future is uncertain.
Portola’s Pronunciation Quandary
This neighborhood’s name is at the center of an oratorical debate.
McLaren Park Wants to Step Out of Golden Gate Park’s Shadow

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