Sebastopol has been fortunate to have had 3 parklets installed during the pandemic to help support downtown businesses and social distancing. Parklets have been discussed around town for probably about 10 years in one form or another. The Core Project participated in several park(ing) days. The Core Project did a one day parklet event and the pandemic gave us an opportunity to have parklets installed for more than one day. In fact, they have been in place for almost 2 years thanks to a Caltrans temporary encroachment permit.
Unfortunately, the temporary encroachment permit expires 12.31.22 and Caltrans has stated there will be no further extensions. The status of the parklets was discussed by the City Council last February, prior to the expiration of the temporary permit extension at the end of February. At that time the Sebastopol City Council directed staff to request a temporary permit extension for all three locations, which was granted until the end of the year, and they decided to make one of the temporary locations permanent and directed staff to pursue that with Caltrans. They punted on whether or not to make the other two locations permanent.
In July, the City Council approved the 2022-2023 Capital Improvement Plan which included $85,000 for the one permanent parklet; $35,000 for the city’s engineering consultant to develop design guidelines and manage the project and $50,000 for the design and construction of the single parklet they approved to make permanent. I’m an architect, and that amount seems more than generous. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure you could spend $50,000 on the design and construction of a parklet, but I also believe it could be done for much less. And $35,000 to develop design guidelines that could easily be cribbed from any one of many jurisdictions that have parklet policies and to manage a parklet project is also rather generous.
The parklet that has been approved by the Council to be made permanent is located adjacent to a cafe and a restaurant. It is your standard parklet built over what had been approximately 3 parking spaces. And saying it was ‘built’ is a stretch. The wood framed platform was built with volunteer labor and donated materials, but the rest of the parklet consists of concrete k-rails installed by the city and furniture provided by the adjacent businesses. Very simple, low-cost construction. And not particularly attractive. But it is popular, particularly at breakfast and lunchtime. When the weather is nice, which is most of the time in Northern California, people are there.
The origin story of parklets is that they were meant to be public park space. An extension of the sidewalk and a way to reclaim public space that had been previously allocated to cars. During the pandemic, as parklets were created to allow businesses to expand operations outside, parklets evolved and many were related to specific businesses. Many people have come to see this as a positive thing as it has clearly added to the vibrancy of the neighborhood when there is a more regular use of the space. San Francisco now distinguishes between public parklets and fixed commercial parklets. The fixed commercial parklet does need to have at least one bench that is for public use, and it allows for full public use outside the sponsoring businesses hours, but during business hours it can be primarily used by one business. It is still generally thought that there should be a mix of ‘public parklets’ and parklets that could be used by a business, typically a restaurant. I’m totally fine with this, as it clearly adds to the vibrancy of a neighborhood when you see people outdoors enjoying themselves while dining.
The parklet that was approved for permanency is a mix of uses. The restaurant does use it for seating and provides table service on about half of the parklet. The other half of the parklet is more available to anyone, but is probably mostly occupied by customers of the adjacent cafe. Caltrans has a policy that does not allow the Caltrans right-of-way to be used for commercial activity, so technically this table service is not allowed. But in the nearly two years of the parklet, no one from Caltrans has attempted to stop it. Caltrans requirements for a permanent parklets, also make note of this prohibition on commercial uses. We’ll see if it is enforced should a more permanent parklet ever be built. I would also like to see this prohibition repealed by Caltrans.
The second ‘typical’ parklet is located in front of a music store, which unfortunately closed earlier this month after being in business over 50 years. The music store had put what I guess would be called a marimba on the parklet, in addition to seating and a piano on the sidewalk, under their awning. They would also occasionally organize musicians to come and play on the parklet. This is certainly the least used of the three parklets and it is interesting to consider why. Unlike the parklet at the cafe and restaurant, the adjacent retail use has a bit harder time activating the parklet. And also, given the inexpensive nature of the installation, it is not a particularly inviting place to just sit and hang out. If it were to be designed as an interesting and attractive space, I think it might be utilized more often.
The third parklet location is actually more of a small plaza. It had previously been a strange street segment with 3 parking spaces. It can only really be described in a photograph.
Not only was it a fairly useless street in terms of the traffic circulation downtown, it was actually rather dangerous given the geometric complications of the adjacent intersection.
This is by far the most popular of the three parklet locations. It is also quite literally at the gateway to downtown. Anyone coming into downtown from the east passes through this intersection. With the parklet located here, it’s an advertisement to those passing through the intersection in their cars for what a fun vibrant town this is. And look at all those people enjoying their ice cream! Yes, one of the businesses adjacent to this location is Screamin’ Mimi’s. Other than Whole Foods, I would say this ice cream shop has more customers per day than any other business downtown. In the summer, they average 1,000 people a day. The parklet was installed in November 2020, about 8 months after the start of the lockdown. Prior to the installation of the parklet, people would order their ice cream and eat it while they walked away. Once the parklet was installed, many people stayed after getting their ice cream. I’m sure there are hundreds of people that use this parklet on any given day.
Unfortunately, some of the adjacent businesses want the parklet removed. The business directly next to Mimi’s is a paint-your-own-pottery and fused glass business. I personally thought the parklet would be useful for that business as well. Put some tables in the parklet and let people work outside, Covid-safe. But the owner was not interested. She thought the 3 parking spaces were more important for her business. The city coordinated getting a couple parking spaces in an adjacent lot set aside for pick-up and drop off, plus there is certainly more parking in the area. And given the ratio of customers between the ice cream shop, the pottery shop and the other nearby businesses, it would be unlikely for those parking spaces to be available for a particular business, and in all likelihood, it would be occupied by one of the 1,000 daily visitors to the ice cream shop.
I’ve been struggling to understand how having hundreds of people per day lingering in front of your business could be bad for your business. I would think most business owners would love to be in that situation. Foot traffic is vitally important for downtown businesses. This isn’t a strip shopping center with an 80′ tall sign on an arterial road to direct people to your business. It’s a small town downtown, and the people lingering in the parklet attract other people. We’re social creatures. And this is why this parklet works. The ice cream shop encourages people to linger. If instead of the ice cream shop it was another retail establishment, it would not be as successful.
One of the primary complaints about this parklet location is that it only benefits one business, Screamin’ Mimi’s. But again, having a vibrant thriving downtown is beneficial to all downtown businesses, at least those that rely on foot traffic. And during the past couple years of having parklets downtown, I’ve come to realize the importance of having an activating use near a parklet. The two parklets adjacent to activating businesses, the cafe, restaurant and ice cream shop are well-utilized. The third location at the now empty retail space is not well-utilized, and is even less appealing now that the store is closed. I can see why San Francisco now has the commercial parklet and the public parklet options.
There are other public spaces downtown that are also rarely used because there is no active nearby use. We have a relatively new CVS building that was quite controversial. They included a widened sidewalk/plaza at the urging of the city. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone stopping and spending time here. Why would they? This is not the type of business to activate a public space. You don’t pick-up shampoo and your prescription and then hang outside the CVS. You don’t suggest meeting at the CVS to your friend.
There was a brief period, for about two months before the Covid lockdown, that the space below was active because there was a Peet’s coffee in the adjacent building. But the Peet’s closed with the lockdown and never re-opened and there has never been another tenant in this building.
This is another downtown mini ‘plaza’. I’ve never seen anyone here either. But why would someone want to sit here? Again, there is nothing to activate this space. And it feels like a leftover space and not something designed for people to sit in.
People also suggest the downtown plaza as a place for people to eat their ice cream. And while some do, you have to walk, and it’s not a great space. Two sides have moving traffic and the other two sides are a parking lot. There are some businesses on the other side of the parking lot, but again, there is too much distance to activate the plaza. And of all the businesses that front the plaza, only two are restaurants. One is only open for lunch. So really not enough activity to encourage people to spend time on the plaza. There are events like the farmer’s market that do activate the plaza. And that’s great. But outside of Sunday mornings the space is really not used much.
I’m hoping that we can get it together and make these temporary parklets permanent. We have seen how people enjoy these spaces, as simple as they are, how they support nearby businesses and how they help to create a more vibrant downtown. It’s fun to see people enjoying themselves. Successful business districts provide places for people to linger. Outside of parklets, downtown Sebastopol doesn’t really have that kind of space. Permanent parklets are an important component of a vibrant Sebastopol.