826 Valencia — Mission Bay

826 Valencia is a nonprofit organization that provides one-on-one tutoring for under-resourced students to improve writing skills and cultivate a love of learning. The Mission Bay Center, located on the ground floor of a new development that offers 100% affordable housing, is 826 Valencia’s third writing center in San Francisco. 826 Valencia’s Mission Bay Center serves kids who live in the apartments above, as well as two neighboring affordable housing developments and local public schools. In a city losing families to untenable housing costs—and in a redeveloping neighborhood marked by medical buildings, luxury apartments, a new sports arena and the commerce it will spur—826 Valencia makes space for under-resourced youth, doing its part to create a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive San Francisco, where all kids have the opportunity to thrive.

826 Valencia wanted their new tutoring center to be playful and whimsical, in keeping with one of the hallmarks of their programs: infusing learning with a spirit of creativity and adventure. Conceived as a forested refuge from the city, the design took inspiration from the hero’s journey, in which the main character embarks upon an adventure, solves a series of problems and emerges transformed. At 826 Valencia’s Mission Bay Center, this happens in an “enchanted forest”—one that ties the transformative experience of learning to fantasy, creativity and play. Like successful schools, 826 Valencia’s tutoring centers serve as community-builders; the Mission Bay Center is an exemplar. Since opening in early 2019, the space has been filled with students and families who live in the building and the neighborhood and engages volunteers from the community.

An inviting storefront—which includes a cash register and stove on the sidewalk and windows full of woodland curiosities—beckons people in. Continuing the playful traditions of 826’s original Pirate Supply Store on Valencia Street and the Tenderloin’s King Carl’s Emporium, the Mission Bay store is branded as Woodland Creature Outfitters, Ltd. The stores sells publications of student writing from 826 Valencia programs alongside tools for navigating a forest, like unicorn horn polish and lumberjack repellent. The store serves to attract curious visitors, who often turn into volunteers and donors to support the 826 mission. Visitors “find their way” through the store, adorned with contrasting light and dark materials that evoke a wooded forest, to get to the tutoring center. One might crawl through a hollowed out log, pause under the magical mushroom tree, or hide out in the reading cave. The Writing Lab, where the programs take place, includes a rock-pool stage where students read their work to the community. It is this special combination of whimsy, tutoring support, and meaningful end-products to showcase their work that make the 826 model unique and effective.

The new space was made possible by the dedicated people who run 826 Valencia, as well as the assistance of local, community-forward businesses that support the progressive values for which San Francisco has long stood. Dedicated to the idea that education should be a right and not a privilege, WRNS Studio partnered with a team of local builders, engineers, artists, and students to deliver the project pro-bono. WRNS sourced finishes and furniture donations from local dealers, BCCI was the builder, Office did the branding and products, Lundberg Design crafted custom tables and the cash wrap, California College of the Arts, BuildLAB created a tree sculpture, and artist Jacqueline Brown contributed a forest mural—in fact, the project is a collaboration of 20 artists and sub-contractors donating or discounting their time and resources for the project.

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