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Start with Zero

Over the past decade the process of entitlement has stretched on so that 4-year entitlements are now common. Site activations, also known as phase zero, have evolved in reaction to these development delays as a way for developers to do something, anything, with the property for which they are already paying. Phase zero projects are typically built with the goal to raise awareness of a site amongst the community at a very low cost (think food trucks, farmer’s markets, and vacant lot concerts).

There have been some excellent examples of phase zero projects in San Francisco over the last few years. Developers Tidewater Capital and War Horse, for one, transformed their vacant internal space at 1020 Market Street into a vibrant and cozy center for food kiosks called The Hall. As tech companies poured into Mid-Market and demand for lunch options skyrocketed, what would otherwise have been a vacant storefront became a food destination.

Further, the development team, all too aware of the gentrifying undertones created by the higher-priced food options and clientele, worked doggedly at community outreach, offering the space as a gathering space for neighbors during morning off-peak hours and using it as a meeting point for neighborhood walking tours.

The project received over 100 letters of support (and none against) when it went before the Planning Commission, where it was approved unanimously. In so doing, it set a high bar in San Francisco for phase zero implementation.

Even with a thoughtful, and unqualified success like The Hall, 1020 Market Street may have missed an even bigger opportunity. Looking at their phase zero implementation through a brand strategy lens, The Hall was more than a revenue generator, community outreach platform, and site awareness tool, it was a highly effective and immersive brand campaign. There are now thousands of workers and residents in the city who associate 1020 Market Street with good food in an informal setting. That is the brand they constructed, and if the final product does not build on the work they’ve done to date, it will be a squandered brand investment.

No matter what your project vision is, your phase zero strategy should reflect it clearly. Are you envisioning a mixed-use residence for families? Consider using the vacant lot as a bicycle training park like

. Want to position a project as irreverent and artistic? Look to Governors Island’s art installation mini golf course. Thoughtful phase zero implementation, closely coordinated with brand strategy, can help developers build connections with their community, the property, and the story, long before construction starts.


Lev Kushner is a public-private partnership consultant and founder at Zero Partners, a real estate brand strategy agency that helps developers tell their project’s story, reducing entitlement risk, expediting approvals, and improving broker traction.

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