Parklets: Economic Development Tool Or Waste Of Valuable Parking?

May 14, 2015

A parklet in San Francisco. A parklet is a sidewalk extension that provides more space and amenities for people using adjacent parallel parking spaces.
Credit Mark Hogan / https://www.flickr.com/photos/markhogan/

Turning pavement into parks—that’s the idea of a parklet.

The city of Lafayette is considering adding some of these new public spaces in its downtown.

But doing so means taking away some prime parking spots in the downtown shopping district.

“They did a whole thing with a scoreboard in the back and stadium seating and some ivy," says Don Kirby, describing the parklet designed for his downtown Lafayette restaurant DT Kirby’s. It’s based on his love of sports and is made to look like Wrigley Field's outfield wall, including distance markers on the ivy-covered wall and sports pennants hanging above.

“Plus some great other things like the bicycle parking and some nice flowers and all that to kind of make it look nice downtown,” says Kirby.

Margy Deverall is a Project Manager with Lafayette’s Economic Development Department. She says the city has been thinking about parklets for a few years, but hadn’t quite figured out how to get them built. She says when a Purdue professor approached the city looking for a project for a landscape architecture class, parklets seemed the perfect fit.

“And it was a very fast turnaround, I mean the project was two weeks," says Deverall. "They sat down and got to know the business owner to find out what were they interested in, what materials did they like, what sort of feel did they want, how were they going to use it.”

Deverall says the class provided each business owner with conceptual drawings. Those would need to be turned into construction drawings to make sure the parklet is structurally sound and compliant with federal law, so the city could issue a building permit.

“Aside from that we have to run it by the parking commission. They have to get permission to take the parking spaces away and use them for something different," says Deverall. "We also want to talk to the Historic Preservation Commission because the majority of them are within the footprint of the downtown historic district.”

And the business itself has to pay for construction, and figure out a way to store the temporary structure during the winter. Deverall understands the concern about taking away parking spaces when parking is already at a premium downtown. But she says ultimately the city thinks the parklets add more than they take away.

“Our sidewalks are so narrow here it’s really difficult to have something set up in front of the business and still have enough room for people to walk by," says Deverall. "But if Main Street is an interesting place to be I don’t think it’s a stretch to ask someone to park half a block away and walk.”

Other cities have faced the same concerns. Robin Abad Ocubillo is an urban planner who manages the city of San Francisco’s Pavement to Parks program, which includes roughly 50 parklets.

He says the key to avoiding complaints about parking is to base the parklets on community-generated ideas.

“Pavement to Parks doesn’t go into a neighborhood and just plop a parklet on the ground," says Abad Ocubillo. "We ask communities and neighborhoods to submit proposals and ideas. That really makes sure the city is responding to aspirations that are already on the ground in the neighborhood.”

Abad Ocubillio says San Francisco parklets go through a yearly permit-renewal process to make sure they’re still meeting the community’s needs.

Margy Deverall says the City of Lafayette views the parklets as an economic development tool, drawing more people downtown -- people who will then patronize existing businesses often enough that more entrepreneurs will want to fill empty storefronts.

Seth Budick is the Policy and Research Manager for the Planning and Economic Development Department in Philadelphia’s University City District—which started installing parklets in 2011.

He says while they’ve been shown to boost existing businesses substantially, he’s not sure they can help revitalize a struggling area.

“I wouldn’t necessarily drop a parklet in and expect it to change things substantially unless it was done in a relatively thoughtful way in terms of what’s missing currently,” says Budick.

He says parklets tend to do best in front of businesses that have a lot of customers, but not a lot of seating.  Budick says another predictor of success is the transparency of the business’s façade— in other words, they’ll be used more if the parklet can be seen from inside the building.

“So there’s kind of this combination of factors where people come into a business and then see this lovely space right outside the building and tend to step outside and patronize that,” says Budick.

Back in Lafayette, DT Kirby’s owner Don Kirby says he’s willing to invest his own money to make the parklet a reality. He says having a series of them will help draw more people downtown.

“If a handful of people will do this, I think for sure we’re gonna be one of those cool destination joints where people not only want to go to the restaurants they want to see what the city looks like itself," says Kirby. "That adds to all of our businesses.”