A parklet in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood. Photo: San Francisco Pavement to Parks
A parklet in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood. Photo: San Francisco Pavement to Parks

Businesses in the Gourmet Ghetto are keen to jump on the parklet bandwagon — bringing outdoor seating to the streets for espresso sippers, pizza eaters, and world watchers in lieu of parking spots — but must first wait for the city to come up with a process for making the spaces available.

So-called parklets — slivers of open space sprouting in cities around the globe — are a big trend in urban design, with San Francisco’s Pavement to Parks leading the way locally, and Oakland following suit (a pilot program is under review there.) Berkeley is a little late to the take-back-the-public-space movement but eager to come up with its own ideas to beautify public areas where community members can congregate. Leading the charge is the North Shattuck Association, which is helping businesses in its café- and restaurant-heavy district organize around the concept.

“The parklets pilot project was conceived by the association based on our experience with hosting temporary parklets during past years on Park(ing) Day and the Spice of Life Festival,” said Heather Hensley, executive director of the association.

Park(ing) Day is an international movement conceived to help city residents around the world reimagine the humble parking space. One day each fall, D.I.Y., creative urbanistas are encouraged to transform parking spots into parks, playgrounds, pop-up cafés — anything other than a lowly (though coveted) place for cars. Park(ing) Day parklets have sprouted in Berkeley in past years in front of the Cheese Board Collective and the late Amanda’s Feel Good Fresh Food.

A parklet on San Francisco’s Divisadero Street. Photo: San Francisco Pavement to Parks
A parklet on San Francisco’s Divisadero Street. Photo: San Francisco Pavement to Parks

The original Park(ing) Day idea, dreamed up by the San Francisco-based urban design studio Rebar, went on to become a model, modern urban prototype. Hensley added that the successful San Francisco program has “enlivened the pedestrian environment in neighborhood business districts” and the association approached its own membership with a view to doing something similar here.

To date, the Cheese Board Collective has developed its own parklet concept, and Guerilla Café/Philz Coffee and Masse’s Pastries/Saul’s Restaurant and Delicatessen have come up with plans for parklets, in consultation with a volunteer designer using San Francisco guidelines.

Typically, parklets feature a wooden or metal structure designed to encompass one or two parking spaces and a platform, making it wheelchair-accessible from the curb. Some include permanent seating like benches or fold-up tables and chairs, and some have space for bike parking. Most include landscaping such as plants and flowers and unique design features.

Who would pay for parklets here? Current thinking is the association would handle the insurance requirements and permit process, Hensley said, while the businesses would agree to help monitor and maintain the parklets and pay some portion of the fees associated with the projects, as well as their construction costs, which might also be covered by community groups or Kickstarter-like campaigns. But those details are all yet to be determined because, while several Berkeley food establishments are gung-ho on building parklets, the city has no approval process in place as yet to consider such plans.

City Councilmember Laurie Capitelli brought the idea of a two-parklet pilot program to the City Council in July. The item was postponed because the city did not have a permitting process in place yet. Several city agencies — including public works, engineering, and transportation — would need to weigh in on parklet approval, noted Eric Angstadt, the city’s director of planning and development, who is now drafting an approval process. Angstadt couldn’t say how long it might take for the city to be in a position to consider parklet proposals.

Benches and bike parking feature in this parklet in San Francisco. Photo: City of Oakland website

While the planning department is unlikely to be the agency that approves or denies proposals (though they may chime in on design elements), Angstadt encountered the approval process for these urban innovations in his former job as planning director in Oakland. “There’s a lot of interest from the community around this, but we’re just now starting to put together options around an application process and it’s unclear as yet which board or commission would be charged with making policy on parklets,” he said.

One of the potentially major obstacles — lost revenue from parking meters — was resolved relatively easily in Oakland, he said, by simply adding a metered parking space in another city location for each slot taken away by a parklet. That city initially approved seven such structures.

Hensley said that a plan to reconfigure parking in the block north of Vine Street (in the area used by the Farmers’ Market), from parallel parking to diagonal parking would add 10 spaces, including one disabled slot, which would offset the loss of parking meter revenue from the addition of parklets in the area.

The Cheese Board Collective parklet would be designed and built by members of the collective with community input, and likely include planter boxes and a mosaic element, said the co-operative’s spokesperson, Cathy Goldsmith. “We’re poised and ready to go, we think this will add color and ambiance in our community, and we’re just waiting on the city to get its act together,” she said. Goldsmith added that businesses approached city officials about the idea some six months ago. A Cheeseboard parklet might alleviate the hazard created by customers sitting on the median in the middle of busy Shattuck Avenue – a practice that is illegal but widely ignored by the pizzeria’s customers.

San Francisco’s Guerrero Park. Photo: San Francisco Pavement to Parks
San Francisco’s Guerrero Park. Photo: San Francisco Pavement to Parks

San Francisco’s parklets are an eclectic mix — some exude European chic with café tables and chairs and tidy planter boxes, some are simply green oases in an otherwise barren landscape, others just open-air nooks that are easy on the eye. All offer a welcome counterpoint to the typical cityscape. In the past two years more than 30 parklets have been built in San Francisco, with dozens more working their way through the permit process and design review. (Initial permits there cost $750 and installation costs runs from $5,000 to $15,000 per parklet, according to a New York Times article.) For a relatively small fee, the city, say some, has inspired a national movement against asphalt.

These experiments in urban beautification offer a place for city folk to pause, sit down, and enjoy a neighborhood’s street life. Still, other challenges to the popular trend include keeping seats open to the public — not just the café-frequenting crowd — and ensuring parklets feel like a tiny public plaza, not glorified overfill seating for the eating establishments they’re in front of.  Such seating could also attract homeless people seeking a place to rest and party people who want to congregate. But design features, such as surfaces that discourage lying down and modular furniture — can go a long way to discourage loitering, said Hensley.

Whether or not the addition of parklets would prevent the long-time practice of Cheese Board pizza customers enjoying a slice in the median strip on Shattuck Avenue (despite a sign banning such activities), remains to be seen.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Oakland’s Angstadt to be Berkeley’s new planning director [03.12.12]
Cheese Board Collective: 40 years in the Gourmet Ghetto [07.08.11]
Food takes to the streets, literally, on Park(ing) Day [09.17.10]
Keba Konte, Guerilla Café [04.09.10]

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