By B.J. Coleman
When strategic planning cannot provide new outdoor public space, what are city dwellers craving open-air gathering sites to do? One solution comes under the rubric of “tactical urbanism,” in which individual residents and local businesses join forces to create their own small-bore outside areas, by bumping out sidewalks into existing street parking slots. These scaled-down takeovers of pavement for people’s use are known as “parklets.”
San Diego is a relative newcomer in placing parklets to increase free space for public use. Nationally, the first reported parklet was an unapproved temporary demonstration project in San Francisco in 2005. Organizers fed coins into a couple of parking meters, and then rolled out sidewalk extensions and fake grass to repurpose the square footage of street as an outside-seating and passive activity area. San Francisco has now progressed to adopting formal guidelines for parklets, which provide such amenities as seating, planting, bicycle corrals, and art, and are funded and maintained by adjacent businesses, residents and community organizations but made publicly accessible and open to anyone.
The city of San Diego has an ongoing pilot project studying the installation of parklets. Councilmember Todd Gloria, whose District 3 includes Hillcrest, has parklets on his mind for 2015. Gloria states, in his predictions for the new year, “I also foresee the passage of a standardized parklet policy that will encourage development of creative public spaces in San Diego.”
Katie Keach, deputy chief of staff for Gloria’s office, expands further, “Councilmember Todd Gloria is committed to the implementation of a formal parklet policy this year. I understand staff expects to have it complete this spring. That will be helpful for parklet proponents like those in Hillcrest.”
She noted that the city considers these projects “temporary pedestrian plazas,” and that they must be readily removable at city request.
“Councilmember Gloria sees parklets as opportunities for community-led creation of public gathering spaces,” Keach said. “The policy will provide neighborhoods with clear guidelines and a clear process to follow so more great projects can result.”
San Diego’s small set of existing parklets are confined to Downtown, Little Italy and North Park. The Beautification Committee of the Hillcrest Business Association (HBA) has taken notice of how this handful of small spaces has re-energized nearby neighborhoods. Eager to rebrand what the HBA considers its business district’s “dying” image, the organization is considering plans for the community’s first parklet, likely to be installed on Park Boulevard outside Heat Bar & Kitchen.
Sam Khorish opened Heat in early 2013, and he sees real need for a parklet there. At the HBA Beautification meeting, he spoke softly and shook his head when describing the area’s elderly residents walking past his restaurant, traversing to and from Hillcrest high-rise senior housing complexes to shop at the Sprouts market. The seniors on foot tire easily, he explained, and he is happy to welcome them to sit on his outside patio for a brief rest. He said he often provides them free bottles of water.
But he worries about some who do not stop because they are reluctant to intrude on his business when not paying to dine. A parklet for the public, where residents could linger at their leisure, would increase safety, convenience and community engagement for these seniors and other nearby residents as well.
About a month ago, Khorish contacted landscape architect Michael Douglas Brennan to enlist his assistance with a design plan for the site. Brennan was delighted to have “the right opportunity” for creating the first parklet in Hillcrest. The envisioned area covers two unmetered parking spaces — which translates into no objections over lost city revenue from not collecting parking meter fees.
Brennan put thought into the healthy cultural habits favored by locals, and local seniors, in particular.
“We should remember we’re all going to get older, if we’re lucky, and we should create spaces that work for us that way,” he said.
His design sketch provides for a parklet with seating to give seniors respite, as well as a bike parking area, a pet feeding and watering station, and a reading room complete with a lending library for book-sharing throughout the neighborhood.
Brennan further explained the intent behind the design. The interesting, pleasing appearance of the parklet should serve as a traffic-calming device, encouraging motorists to drive slowly and carefully to enjoy the scene, rather than zipping along the street corridor. The speed limit along that stretch of Park Boulevard is currently 35 mph.
Good design also assists people with maintaining healthy practices, by fostering relaxation, physical activity and mental exercise, said Brennan.
“This increases neighborhood involvement too,” he said.
How much will this cost, and how is this to be paid for? Khorish said he will commit funds and fundraising efforts. He said he has been in discussions over possibilities with the HBA.
At the Beautification meeting, Benjamin Nicholls, executive director of the HBA, said he foresaw no difficulties with obtaining waivers and permission from the city of San Diego, but he asked not altogether rhetorically, “Where will the money come from?” HBA members have concluded that “a reasonable budget” for the parklet will be upwards of $20,000, and could run as high as $30,000 to cover all construction costs. Permitting fees for the project will be $1,200. Khorish is willing to host movie nights, with a 6-foot screen, to bring in money for the project. The area parking district might be agreeable to adding in as much as $5,000, because sidewalk and curb repairs are already needed at the site.
“This won’t make the cash register ring,” Khorish admitted. His restaurant will not be able to serve customers there, under current pilot project guidelines for parklets. Moreover, his business will be responsible for maintaining the parklet’s conditions. “Sam is really about investing in the neighborhood and giving back,” Brennan said of Khorish. And a parklet is about taking back a little piece of the public right of way for everyone to enjoy.
—Contact B.J. Coleman at Barshajo@aim.com.