An uptick in the number of people working from home, a decrease in foot traffic and the relocating or altogether shuttering of businesses, with storefront window signs announcing “closed” and properties without tenants — downtown San Francisco hasn’t been immune to these COVID-19-related effects.

But a revitalization effort, by the nonprofit SF New Deal and its project called Vacant to Vibrant, is underway.

“What we have seen is that there is an opportunity to think about what downtown—post-recovery, as we’re emerging from the pandemic—is going to look like. And the pop-up program that we’re running in partnership with the city is really meant to create a window [into] what downtown could be,” says Simon Bertrang, executive director of SF New Deal.

SF New Deal is the organization behind Vacant to Vibrant, which addresses store and building vacancies by filling them with pop-up shops and conceptual spaces featuring local businesses, organizations, entrepreneurs and artists.

In late August, San Francisco’s Mayor London Breed, SF New Deal and the Office of Economic & Workforce Development announced the first 17 participants that will use nine downtown properties as pop-up locations.

The program is a part of Breed’s “Roadmap to San Francisco’s Future,” an initiative focused on re-energizing San Francisco and promoting growth and opportunities in the city, specifically downtown. Three phases of selected groups each get three to four months in their pop-up spaces.

The first Vacant to Vibrant participants include: visual artist Bee Betwee; the skate collective and apparel brand BRUJAS; Devil’s Teeth baking company; the fine art-focused GCS Agency; the clothing factory fellowship Holy Stitch!; plant and accessory supplier The Mellow; Nature’s Keeper, a collective making sustainable gear for snowboarders and skiers; Rosalind Bakery; Sucka Flea market and swap; Teranga foods; and art collaborators Phil Spitler and Victoria Mara Heilweil.

These groups, which received grants between $3,000 and $8,000, were chosen from some 875 initial applicants selected by an advisory committee of community members, small business owners, artists and others. The committee is slated to select participants for the program’s second and third rounds in 2024. Applications continue to be accepted and reviewed on a rolling basis; the number of applicants has reached 1,000.

“We have a tremendous amount of interest and excitement from people from all over the Bay Area, from San Francisco, wanting to come participate in the reimagining of the future of downtown, and so that has been fantastic,” says Bertrang.

Multidisciplinary artist Risa Iwasaki Culbertson will be using her downtown pop-up location to display her work and as a space for community gatherings. (Photo by Elliot Alexander)

Multidisciplinary artist Risa Iwasaki Culbertson found cause for celebration upon being selected. Culbertson, who lives in the Richmond, says, “I have a great group of creatives here, and small business owners, and we get together. … A couple of us were applying to [Vacant to Vibrant], and we were like, ‘We just want someone in the community to get it. We're just going to root for anyone who gets it.’ So I applied, and I got it. I was like, ‘Oh my God! That’s amazing!’”

Culbertson, who’s been busy getting everything together for her pop-up opening, is a former letterpress printer who explored other art forms during the pandemic. She is behind Neighborhood Appreciation Cards, a collection of 50 illustrated notes featuring Richmond District-scenes; the exhibition “Nonsense Makes Sense” at Park Life Gallery; and the banners on Clement Street with vibrant images and statements such as “come shop.”

Her art is designed to invoke joyfulness, connection and vulnerability: “I want to meet people where they're at. So if they're just there to see something fun and playful and it makes them feel good for a moment and that's what they need, I'm here for you. But if you want to kind of dig deeper and hear the story and find a different way of connecting, that's also here for you. I don't want my art to be pretentious or feel like you have to like ‘get it’ in order to enjoy it,” she says.

Culbertson, who had pondered how to obtain a place to create and share her work, knew spaces were out there. The challenge was getting one.

She says, “I was like, “Man, it would be really cool to be able to utilize those vacancies as a way to showcase our vibrant arts community. And it'd be so cool to have a pop-up gallery, even if it's just to showcase [artwork] in windows, but how do you do that?’”

She found that Vacant to Vibrant worked with city and local property owners to secure permits and grants to fund pop-ups, removing hurdles that previously prevented her from obtaining a vacant space.

Risa Iwasaki Culbertson describes her art as approachable as opposed to pretentious and as “meeting people where they’re at.” (Photo courtesy of Risa Iwasaki Culbertson)

“They were like, ‘We take care of all of the backend stuff.’ And I was like,’ Yes! That's the barrier. That was the thing that kept me from moving forward with this idea,” she says.

Creativity Explored, a Mission District-based nonprofit art studio and gallery promoting the creativity of adults with disabilities and celebrating its 40th anniversary, is another participant.

“We both help artists develop their art practice and provide a really supportive community that cares about the whole person. We also exhibit their work and, in the process, have a dialogue that changes the contemporary art world and helps increase the appreciation for the creativity of disabled adults,” says Creativity Explored Executive Director Linda Johnson.

Creativity Explored artists have been featured in “Into the Brightness” at the Oakland Museum of California. Their work has also been displayed in San Francisco’s Ferry Building. Their Vacant to Vibrant pop-up will include a window showcase of the artists’ creations.

“These kinds of projects—helping activate spaces—are really common ones that we will take on. We've partnered with many, many companies, architects and real estate developers to activate not only windows but also all kinds of spaces within developments—offices, residences, affordable housing, et cetera. We have a program where we place our art within all kinds of different buildings and developments for people to enjoy,” Johnson says.

The Creativity Explored pop-up space will also feature an interior exhibition, and there are plans to hold an in-person event as well.

“Inclusion is a huge part of our mission, and this will be a really fun opportunity for our artists and our supporters to all kind of come together with folks downtown. … A lot of people have been reaching out and congratulating us and really wanting to come and see what we do,” Johnson adds.

“Coming together” is a perceptible theme of Vacant to Vibrant. Bertrang explains, “One of the unique things about this program is that we are combining, in some cases, different pop-up businesses in a single location. … The one that always comes to mind is Whack Donuts!, which is going to be popping up in a space with a cafe with coffee [York Street Cafe]. … We’re combining two small businesses in one location for the benefit of both businesses.”

There are a number of unique combinations across the nine spaces.

Peter Cordova is an artist from Creativity Explored, which will have a Vacant to Vibrant pop-up at 200 Montgomery St. (Photo by Peter Prato)

Creativity Explored is sharing its 200 Montgomery St. location with local NPR station KALW, which Johnson calls “a perfect fit.” Culbertson is sharing her 151 Jackson St. location with Richmond District neighbor Linda Fahey, a ceramicist and the owner of Yonder.

The program’s spaces will be open on days and during hours that bring crowds, including Saturdays, Sundays and evenings.

“That sort of Monday through Friday, nine-to-five world is not coming back in the same way. We want to be able to expand the hours so that downtown will be an attractive place for people to visit,” says Bertrang.

The first groups will be in their spaces until the end of the year, with the possibility of lengthening their stay.

“If some of the 17 activators want to create a long-term relationship with a property owner, we actually have the ability to extend their lease for up to three months so that we can transition them into a permanent space. But that's not a requirement of the program,” says Bertrang.

The second group potentially will get underway in January, at the soonest, and be in their spaces in spring 2024. Neighborhoods for the second and third groups and the specific timeframe are still being decided.

Bertrang says, “The purpose of the program is to focus on downtown in general. The first [location] is the Financial District, but the broader definition of ‘downtown’ is something that we're interested in supporting.”

The time to go public with the first pop-ups is nearing. SF New Deal is in the final stages of figuring out details and dates of the pop-ups’ openings, with a comprehensive list of events and activities on the way.

“We're going to be working really hard to make sure that everyone in the whole city, and in the region, knows when those openings are and what kind of events are downtown that they can participate in,” assures Bertrang.

For more information about Vacant to Vibrant, go here.