Shipping-container design too raw for midtown Sacramento

There will be no oom-pah-pah heralding the opening of Der Biergarten at 24th and K streets, planned for early January. You’ll merely hear beer steins clinking and drinkers conversing, followed by the sound of customers dispersing to an early curfew.

A prohibition on live music and amplified sound, along with an agreement to close earlier than many Starbucks do, are but two concessions that cleared the way in midtown to build Sacramento’s first outdoor beer garden, a first-of-its-kind construction project in the Sacramento region, using industrial shipping containers.

The biggest concession – over the look of the metal containers themselves – changed the face of the project, doubled its estimated cost and consumed one year of a five-year lease on the property.

“It was such a fight that we were going to say, ‘Forget the Planning Department’ and go to the City Council for approval because you can do that if they deny you permits,” said Sean Derfield, the Old Sacramento saloon owner who is funding Der Biergarten with $250,000 of his own cash. “But our whole goal was to be open ... . So we said, ‘We’re not going to fight it. We’re going to do what you guys want. You guys have the vision for how you want the city to look.’ ”

What started in October 2012 as a plan to construct a temporary beer garden in a long-vacant lot is now close to completion after multiple postponements. While Derfield said he expects Der Biergarten to be open no later than Jan. 2, its look will be a long way from its original design showcasing the shipping containers’ raw industrial character.

“I’m a little disappointed that it’s not going to look much like a shipping container,” said contractor Shawn Eldredge, whose restaurant construction résumé includes de Vere’s Irish Pub, Mulvaney’s B&L and Hook & Ladder. “The city of Sacramento was very adamant that this look like a permanent structure and not look like a shipping container dropped on an empty lot.”

Industrial shipping containers – the steel boxes that ride on cargo ships, railroad cars and semitruck trailers around the world – have been converted into restaurants and shopping districts in Beijing, London, San Francisco and other cities in the past decade, some with so few modifications that their overriding aesthetic appeal is that they look exactly like industrial shipping containers.

In Sacramento, Eldredge said, the modifications required by the city’s design guidelines and the county’s Health Department regulations effectively turned progressive urban design into plain old prefab.

“Now you have this contemporary shell that’s just decorated,” Eldredge said. “In our opinion, it was a perfect creature as it was.”

The outside walls of Der Biergarten’s shipping containers – a 40-by-8-by-81/2-feet box that serves as the kitchen, bar, ordering station and storage, and a 20-footer that houses restrooms and an office –are now clad in Hardie Board, a durable, flat exterior panel used in housing construction. The panels are painted in muted earthy red, green and gray.

“We heard pretty clearly from surrounding property owners that there should still be a substantial investment in terms of quality and design,” said Greg Taylor, the city’s urban design manager. “The kind of compromise we were looking for was to ask them to clad the outside of the building.”

The main shipping container’s interior is covered with drywall, stainless-steel paneling, diamond-plate aluminum flooring and 6-inch tile covering where walls meet the floor, all per Health Department regulations.

Taylor said modifications to the shipping containers’ exteriors were required by Sacramento’s Central City Neighborhood Design Guidelines.

“We have nothing, per se, against containers,” Taylor said. “The containers themselves can be very creatively done. It was just mostly in the nature and the context of that location. I felt that it needed a little more refinement in the nature of investment in that business district. In another part of the city, it probably would have had a different set of circumstances and responses.”

“Mostly it was a problem with the idea of putting cargo containers in midtown,” Derfield said. “Basically their biggest concern was the look of the cargo containers.”

Der Biergarten’s original plan was modeled on San Francisco’s Biergarten, a bare-bones urban beer garden located near Proxy Project, a cluster of boutiques built from shipping containers in the Hayes Valley neighborhood. Both Biergarten and Proxy are intended as temporary structures that will make way for permanent development. San Francisco’s Biergarten features exposed metal exterior and interior, and among other differences, is not bolted into concrete like Sacramento’s Der Biergarten.

“In San Francisco, they got a pass. It’s pure, raw container,” Eldridge said. “Sacramento made us comply with standard rules for a permanent restaurant vs. San Francisco, where they have a middle of the road and they call them semipermanent construction. I heard from both the Sacramento County Health Department and the city of Sacramento, ‘We’re not San Francisco.’ ”

Thomas Roth, who has owned the property at 2332 K St. since 2000, was similarly schooled.

“I told Greg Taylor I disagree with him,” said Roth, an arts and real estate entrepreneur who owns five other properties in the vicinity. “I took him pictures of the Puma store on Pier 23 in San Francisco, bright red, prime real estate. I said, ‘Look, if they can do it why can’t we do it? And he said, ‘Well, that’s San Francisco. We don’t do that.’ ”

“We always reference projects to our community guidelines,” Taylor said. “The guidelines don’t talk specifically about containers but they talk about principles of design that we try to work with.”

Building structures with shipping containers has been a fetish of designers and architects since futurist Stewart Brand wrote about converting a shipping container into an office in his 1994 book “How Buildings Learn.” Today, they’re used to house restaurants, retail shops, prisons and emergency housing. Starbucks, for example, has built seven locations using shipping containers.

Thanks to a trade deficit with China, there’s a glut of shipping containers in America. Dinged-up ones might cost $2,000 each, brand-new containers about $6,000. Derfield paid $3,500 for his 40-footer and $2,200 for the 20-footer from a dealer in Vallejo.

Derfield said Der Biergarten will have 30 taps pouring primarily German and Belgian beers in third-, half- and full-liter glasses, plus some local and regional craft beers. With a scaled-down kitchen that won’t allow for frying, don’t expect schnitzel. But a conveyor oven can handle pretzels and sausages from Morant’s Meats. Derfield said pickles and sauerkraut will be made on site. Expect sandwiches built with Belgian waffles instead of bread.

“It’s not a traditional German beer garden,” said Derfield, German by heritage. “We’re not wearing lederhosen.”

Derfield said there’s capacity for about 100 customers, seated at the two dozen beer-hall-style tables and standing up.

In granting Der Biergarten its license, the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control required that it close at 9 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. There’s also a ban on live music, amplified music and television. Both stipulations are intended to address neighborhood noise concerns. Derfield said both matters can be reassessed in a year.

“We want to be good neighbors,” Derfield said. “Good business owners usually take care of the neighborhood.”

As Der Biergarten is an open-air facility, with planned heat lamps for warmth and retractable sun sails for shade, wet weather could present a problem. Derfield’s solution? The beer garden will close on rainy days.

“In Sacramento, the average is 35 days of rain a year,” Derfield said.

“Fortunately, it’s all mostly within three or four months. We can pretty much predict the weather. If it’s going to rain, we call off the staff.”

What about Sacramento’s sweltering summers? Der Biergarten will be open when it’s 105 degrees.

“You can deal with a little bit of heat as long as we have misters and cold beer,” Derfield said.