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Downtown San Francisco Ikea teases plan for hanging tomato gardens

The yet-to-open Ikea on Market Street in San Francisco is pictured on Tuesday. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Ikea is planning something special for its new Downtown San Francisco location: a hanging fruit and vegetable garden, complete with an underground farm, to promote the “growing and sharing of food” in the concrete-heavy, Mid-Market neighborhood. 

The fresh plans for the 945 Market St. location would transform a dingy parking garage under the Livat mall into an underground farm and add “community table” events to an alleyway where unhoused people have often set up tents. 

Ikea’s parent company, Ingka Centres, unveiled the plan in June, pledging to bring greenery to the neighborhood and “address climate change on a hyperlocal level” from a Market Street basement and mall. 

A design rendering of Stevenson Street shows vertical gardens proposed for the outside of the Livat center, where Ikea will open. | Source: Courtesy Smart City Labs

It’s currently unknown what types of fruits and vegetables would be grown at the Livat, but tomatoes and berries have been brought up in conversations between The Standard and project planners. 

Ingka Centres and Ikea collaborated with C40 Reinventing Cities and the City of San Francisco to host an urban design competition in October 2022. They aimed to find a low-carbon, sustainable project to “create a green and thriving public realm” around the eagerly anticipated Livat, with the 87,000-square-foot Ikea store as its crown jewel. 

The winning project, run by urban planning company Smart City Labs, will also install a rooftop solar farm, an affordable bicycle repair center and a “digital garden.” It is unclear what the digital garden entails. 

Ingka Centre’s tagline pledges to better everyday life “for the many”—that approach inspired Smart City Labs CEO Jack Illes to pursue an urban design project at the Livat.

The Livat building was purchased by Ingka Centres in 2020. It was previously known as the 6x6 mall. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Ikea has previously worked to transform and add additional community spaces surrounding its stores. It has created a handful of co-meeting spaces around the world, similar to San Francisco Ikea’s planned “farm and table” concept. 

“I fell in love with the Ingka approach and what they’re trying to do,” Illes said. “This is a space-activation project, which means the space surrounding the [Livat] but also the space within it.”

Some Stumbling Blocks

City officials have raised questions about aspects of the project, from vermin and pesticides to tomatoes potentially falling on people’s heads. Illes said the hanging and underground farms would provide food for consumption on site, particularly to stock a food hall and its vendors. 

“I imagine we might have questions about falling stuff,” wrote Laurel Arvanitidis, director of business development at the city’s economic and workforce development office, in email communications to C40. “Are these heavy [fruits] that might fall on my head and hurt me or damage my vehicle; and is this going to make a mess of tomatoes on the ground that attract rodents and how do we mitigate that?”

C40 representatives said “solutions are currently being studied” for potential pest and vermin issues. 

Urban Alchemy workers walk outside encampments set up along Stevenson Street in San Francisco. | Source: Courtesy Smart City Labs

City staffers and private urban planners representing Smart City Labs also raised concerns about homelessness, local drug use and public safety. The Livat is located near a former Whole Foods, which shuttered in April due to staff safety concerns.

The proposal as-is would potentially require the clearing of Stevenson Street, a side street behind the mall often used for service trucks. The street presents a stumbling block to the plans as it has been known to be used for homeless encampments, according to project documents, though Illes noted the project does not plan to shut off the street permanently. 

“All parties agree on this, and everyone is well aware of the challenges the street is facing,” said a C40 representative. “This situation makes the involvement of the community, including, of course, the unhoused people who use the streets, even more crucial.” 

The plans to host a bike repair station and a monthly community table would likely involve closures to Stevenson Street, though C40 and Smart City Labs staffers emphasize plans are not yet finalized. 

A person walks down the empty tracks at Powell and Market streets in San Francisco. | Source: Jessica Christian/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Ingka Centres will work with Smart City Labs to implement the project in phases, and Ikea’s parent company will pledge up to $1.25 million in support. Smart City Labs worked with United Cities North America and Urban Innovations Inc. to create the winning project. C40 declined to give an exact date for when the project will open, as it is currently in the “fine-tuning phase.” 

“Growing food on Market Street: I love that it is such a different narrative than every other article that you’ve read about San Francisco,” Illes said. “This project is a way of turning that story around and helping people focus on the other parts of SF that had been lost recently.” 

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