Since November of 2020 Sebastopol has had 3 parklets installed as a response to the pandemic to allow for more outdoor options for the public to congregate downtown. Because all 3 parklets are located on Caltrans right-of-way, an encroachment permit was required from Caltrans. And in order to expedite the approval, the Sebastopol parklet installations were modeled on those installed in downtown Saratoga which is also a Caltrans highway. In Sebastopol, they consist of concrete k-rails with a wood-framed platform to bring them level with the sidewalks. The city purchased and installed the k-rails, a local contractor donated the materials and volunteers assembled the platforms. Local businesses furnished them and had the k-rails painted. They are simple and functional, but are not going to win any parklet design competitions.
Caltrans granted the initial approval in October 2020, with an expiration date of February 27, 2021. An extension was granted for a year until February 27, 2022.
The city is working with Caltrans on another extension of the temporary encroachment permit (even though after the last extension they said there would be no more extensions). However, the parklets have been so successful and popular (not a surprise), that there is an strong interest to make them permanent. To my knowledge, there are no permanent parklets on any Caltrans right-of-way. If you’re reading this and know of any, please contact me and let me know. I would love to know about any precedents. Caltrans does have a process in their manual for a permanent parklet request, but they have been a bit evasive about it so far.
Regardless of what Caltrans will or will not allow, the issue of the future of the parklets recently came before the Sebastopol City Council for discussion. Two of the parklets are in the tradition of occupying what had formerly been parking spaces. At these two locations the parklets are separated from moving vehicular traffic by a bike lane. The third location actually closed off an entire section of street , including 3 parallel parking spaces, between the sidewalk and a landscaped pedestrian island at an unusually shaped intersection.
It was hoped that all 3 locations would get a green light from the council to become permanent parklets, pending review and approval of Caltrans. Many of the nearby businesses would like to make improvements to the parklets, but don’t want to invest money if they are temporary. With the approval of the council, we can come up with new designs at each location to review with Caltrans.
It is not a surprise that the parklets have been very popular. Location 1 is in front of a popular cafe and a restaurant. The parklet was definitely a life-saver for the restaurant. During the months where indoor dining was not allowed the parklet allowed them to continue serving. And the tables are regularly full. Location 2 is in front of a music store. They put out a marimba and a piano and often have small groups of musicians playing music. Location 3 is in front of a popular ice cream shop along with a paint your own pottery studio and a retail business.
The city conducted a survey last spring and again, no surprise, the overall sentiment was that the parklets were popular. The ice cream shop also had a QR code link to a survey on the tables in their plaza which was also received predominately positive responses. And one of the businesses started a change.org petition in support of making the parklets permanent which has been signed by 801 people as of this writing. The parklets are clearly popular in the community.
Unfortunately, there are some downtown businesses that would prefer the parklets do not become permanent. The predominant concern is a loss of parking (about 8 total spaces were converted between the 3 locations), but there are other concerns as well. One is that they are not attractive. I don’t disagree with that, but again, the aim was to get something installed quickly, and we followed precedent in order to get a quicker approval by Caltrans (which by the way, approved the application within a couple of days!). And as I mentioned, businesses would like to improve on what is there, but only if the investment will be able to remain in place. Concerns by these businesses have focused on locations 2 and 3.
The owner of the paint your own pottery studio in particular has complained quite a bit. She has expressed numerous concerns, but the basic concerns are that it disrupts pick-up and drop-off by parents and it has been bad for her business. Look at the photo above. How having people lingering in front of you happily eating ice-cream can be bad for your business is hard to imagine. In the summer, the ice cream shop serves around 1,000 people/day. I’m sure this is more traffic than any other downtown business, by far. If I was opening a business in downtown Sebastopol, this is the place I’d want to be, hands down. Just to the left of the building in the photo above is a private parking lot (for a bank of all things) The city negotiated with the bank to reserve 2 spots in for 10 minute parking to help with drop-off and pick-up for nearby businesses. But apparently this is not good enough.
In any case, the council, given the opportunity to make these permanent people-oriented places in a downtown that is the literal crossroads of 2 state highways that completely dominate the environment, punted. They did agree that location 1 could remain, because it had no opposition. But they want the planning commission, because they also act as the parks commission, and these are ‘park’lets, to review the other 2 locations. The council discussed the need for more data on the use of the parklets. As if the 2 surveys and the petition was not enough to convince them that the community likes the parklets. I’m not sure what data they are looking for.
We’ve had this great 15 month parklet trial, and the verdict is in. They are providing much needed people-oriented space in a downtown that is dominated by cars. The traffic north-south traffic is circulated on 2 one-way streets in order to move cars through downtown as quickly as possible. Pedestrian infrastructure is an afterthought, if thought of at all. Sidewalks downtown are narrow and there is no place to gather, except the plaza, which is very cut-off from downtown and itself surrounded by cars.
At this point the next step is for the planning commission to weigh in on these locations and then hopefully we can continue on to work on making all 3 locations more permanent installations and help to provide just a little more space for people.