Stacked Containers Create Novel Spaces

From design to tenants, the MacArthur Annex feels a lot like Oakland.


An open house in the fall showed off the office and retail spaces of the MacArthur Annex, a new development of stacked shipping containers.

Photos by Pat Mazzera

When Christy Swenson walked by each day and watched the shipping-container building going up across from the MacArthur BART station, she dreamed about having her own business there. One day she shoved a seashell in the dirt by the building and made a wish. Now she has a space at the building, the MacArthur Annex, and has launched Aloeswood Beauty where she sells organic skincare products and provides facials and body treatments.

Swenson set up shop in November along with the annex’s three retail tenants—a record store, an apothecary, and a women’s boutique. Other local designers followed, turning the annex into something of an artsy makers’ haven. Later in January, the one-story building adjacent to the arts-and-retail complex will house new businesses—a coffeehouse and a restaurant.

The new building at 40th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way was constructed with lightly used shipping containers stacked three-stories high, creating 27 compact units. Its architecture is reminiscent of the Oakland port a few miles away, and the occupants—an eclectic mix of artists and small businesses—reflect the diverse nature of the city. Most of the tenants live in Oakland, several within a few blocks of the building. The MacArthur Annex feels like Oakland inside and out.

“Containers are great from a structural standpoint. This building is all about natural light and modular design,” said Matt Baran of Baran Studio, the architect on the project.


Each container is an individual unit, 140 square feet, with glass walls at each end. Solar-powered and with LED lighting, the annex is part of a trend toward small and sustainable building in Oakland.

There is a gap between the shared office concept, like the co-working spaces popular in Oakland, and the conventional office building space that can be out of reach financially for small businesses. The units in the MacArthur Annex are an alternative for entrepreneurs, artists, and select retailers, and the price feels competitive. Rents at the annex run between $800 to $1,000 a month, compared to the larger office space in a traditional building, often a minimum of 500 square feet, which runs well over $1,000 and up to $3,000 a month. For a desk in a co-working space, the typical range is from $250 to $450 a month, more or less depending on hours and amenities, but the space is, well, shared.

You might think fitting an office or studio or shop in a 7-by-19 foot box would feel claustrophobic, but in fact the spaces feel airy and light and for the right business, it’s the right fit. At Contact Records, the mostly used music store on the ground floor, bins of vinyl records line shelves on the white wall to the right; a listening station, a turntable with headphones, is set up on the left, and there’s room to browse front to back. One day you might hear the folk rock sounds of Mouse and the Traps, a one-hit wonder and American garage band from the 1960s, but the next time, the music will be something different and just as unique. The inventory at the tiny buy-sell-and trade record shop will constantly be changing, said the owners, husband and wife Andrew Kerwin and Hannah Lew.


Alissa Anderson’s apothecary shop, Foggy Notion (the name inspired by the music of the Velvet Underground), smells earthy and soothing with a tangy hint of spice, aromas from the organic deodorants, soaps, and toothpastes housed in glass cases, and bags, wallets, and jewelry from Bay Area designers cover the walls. La Loba, the women’s specialty shop, is the team effort of dressmaker Gina DiGirolamo and designer Beth Naumann and features handmade women’s clothing and handcrafted brass jewelry.

The rest of the annex is populated with a crew of local designers—sandals (by Stacey Fulwiler), sunglasses (by Matt Costa), brass and seaglass jewelry (by Amy Morrell), web pages (by Chelsey Dyer), wood frames (by Andrew Berg Sweeney), landscapes (by Frank Eddy), and more. These artsy tenants have bonded quickly and plan to host open studio events on the second Sundays of the month.

Matthew Drewry Baker will use his space for his foraged, floral design business, the Hanged Co. He creates whimsical, funky floral designs for weddings, events, restaurants, and stores with plants he sources from his own garden and the sides of the road. There’s also a New York Times best-selling author, Robin Sloan. Following the success of his debut novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Sloan said he is waiting on the release of his second book—a Bay Area adventure that weaves through Berkeley, Oakland, and Alameda, and working on his third, “whatever that will be.”

There is more than the novel experience of browsing and meeting in container spaces that may attract patrons, such as a visit with the neighbors at Subrosa, the new coffee shop, and Arthur Mac, the new restaurant. This will be the second location for Catherine Macken whose original Subrosa coffee shop is a few blocks away on 40th Street. Arthur Mac Owner Joel DiGiorgio said his family- and pet-friendly pizzeria will serve lunch, dinner, and take-out and feature 15 beers on tap plus wine and ciders. And there will be outside seating in the southwest-facing beer garden with a sandbox for the kids.

Whether containers will be a new wave in Oakland construction is hard to say, but the size and price may be filling a market niche. Eighty-five percent of the units in the MacArthur Annex were rented within a month of opening.


Published online on Jan. 17, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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