Already known for surrendering curbside parking spaces to bike racks, Valencia Street in the Mission district may be on the verge of an even more radical role reversal. Pedestrians and motorists trade places in the corridor’s six new “parklets,” where temporary patios, benches and social spaces are perched directly in the parking lane — taking one, two or three parking spots at a time. It can feel revolutionary to visit one, which is appropriate because the concept was born of guerilla tactics.
“We were interested in exploring a new range of possibilities for the metered parking space,” said Matthew Passmore of Rebar Art and Design, the design studio that launched the idea.
Attempting to spark a conversation about public open space, Rebar temporarily transformed a downtown parking space into a minipark, borrowing an idea from European cities. They rolled sod out onto the pavement, adorned it with a tree and a bench, and, when the parking meter expired two hours later, departed as quietly as they had come.
“Part of the experiment we were conducting was to see how The City would react,” Passmore recalled. “We didn’t hear anything from anyone for a few months, until someone in the Mayor’s Office got in touch with us and said ‘This is great, we love it, we’d love to talk about how we can do more of this.’”
Six years later, 23 fully sanctioned parklets exist in The City with at least as many more on the way. With Rebar’s help, San Francisco is leading a movement to reclaim small sections of city streets as public space.
PARK(ing) Day, an annual event that encourages citizens around the world to temporarily transform parking spaces into whatever a neighborhood needs — art galleries, bike repair shops, health clinics, vegetable gardens — this year involved approximately 1,000 installations in 200 cities and 35 countries, according to early estimates.
On the official side, San Francisco’s Pavement to Parks program, an interdepartmental effort to reappropriate unused street surfaces, includes an innovative permitting system that has been mimicked by other U.S. cities.
“It opened up a new way of thinking as far as how we use our streets,” said Planning Department staffer Andres Power, who has led The City’s effort. “Parklets provide a tool to move back to the way things once were, when streets were places.”
Passmore, who administers PARK(ing) Day, has since joined forces with The City. He and his team helped the Planning Department conceive its pilot program last year, and built one of the first installations at 22nd and Bartlett streets, a sprawling wooden patio featuring seating for at least a dozen as well as two bike racks in place of three parking spots.
“Our mission is to make PARK(ing) Day totally obsolete, such that the event becomes obvious or unnecessary because people have already started thinking past the issues that it raises,” he said. “I think it’s happening here.”
San Francisco’s permit allows neighborhood or business sponsors to build a parklet of their own design and at their own cost, provided it meets a set of parameters and is selected by a review board. A request for proposals went out in May for the program’s second wave; Power’s department received 35 applications, two-thirds of which will receive permits and could begin construction by early December. A third round of applications will open around the same time.
“People are quite excited about this program, and I think the designs of the projects are getting better and better,” Power said.
The temporary nature of the parklets — they’re installed above the existing infrastructure, with no modifications to the curb, drainage, or street design — is the key to the program’s success. It allows for a playful, experimental approach to design — one on Valencia features dinosaur-themed topiary. It also prevents the permanent loss of parking spaces. Permits are renewed annually and can be revoked at any time for several reasons, including blight and lack of maintenance.
These conditions have helped mitigate scattered concerns over parklet proposals, often centered on the loss of parking and an uptick in illegal activity. Some Noe Valley residents and business owners objected to the idea of a pilot Pavement to Parks plaza in the neighborhood last spring, but softened when a temporary and smaller-scale parklet was offered instead.
“The primary concern was that you lose parking spaces, and parking spaces are very important to the commercial community,” said Bob Roddick, president of the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association and the Noe Valley Association. “However, we felt that the social benefit gained was well worth the loss.”
That permit holders are financially invested yet retain the freedom to shut their parklet down provides another check; design and construction costs typically range between $5,000 and $15,000, Powers said. There’s always the chance that new parklets will go ignored — on a recent weekday afternoon around lunchtime, parklets throughout the Mission were sparsely used. But Powers doesn’t believe The City is anywhere near a saturation point.
One Inner Sunset neighborhood that recently received its first parklet may soon be clamoring for more. “We wanted a place where people can make social connections,” said Adam Greenfield, a resident who helped spearhead the project. “It’s interesting to see how many people will walk past and say, ‘Wow, I never thought of that before.’”
The small seating area parked outside Arizmendi Bakery challenges another critique of parklets: that they simply serve as outdoor patios for adjacent restaurants and cafes. Greenfield occasionally watches to see how many parklet users are customers. Some are and some aren’t, he said, but more importantly, most everyone feels comfortable to sit and chat with neighbors as the N-Judah rumbles by just a few feet away.
Add it to the list of San Francisco firsts. Over the past two years, The City’s parklet permit program has served as a national model for cities looking to infuse new life into underutilized streets. The program’s integration of private sponsorship, citizen involvement and temporary streetscape improvements has proven irresistible to governments and residents on both coasts, and appears poised to keep growing.
New York City was the first to follow. NYC Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan initiated the exchange. During a visit with city leaders in 2008, she challenged San Francisco to develop its Pavement to Parks plaza program, a larger and more permanent approach that commenced with the Castro Commons at 17th and Castro streets last year.
Around the same time, PARK(ing) Day was catching on in The City, so the Planning Department moved to also permit temporary, community-sponsored parklets through the Pavement to Parks initiative. New York became enamored with the idea, and nine months later had a program of its own.
“We copied San Francisco completely,” said Assistant Commissioner Andy Wiley-Schwartz. “Introducing people to the idea that streets can be more than just for conveying traffic is something that’s hard to do. So when you have these experiments that you can put down on top of the existing roadbed, that kind of thing is a very powerful notion.”
Oakland became interested in institutionalizing a similar program after years of participation in PARK(ing) Day. After consulting with Andres Power and other Planning Department staff, Oakland’s Community and Economic Development Agency unveiled a pilot program in September that will result in eight to 10 parklets being approved for a one-year trial period.
The hope is to stimulate retail development by improving the pedestrian experience on city streets, said Erik Angstadt, deputy director of planning and zoning. “If you make it pleasant for people to be on the streets, most of the other things are going to follow,” he said. “Especially for a cash-strapped city, it’s a way of shifting some of that burden from the public sector to the private sector.”
Also embracing parklets in the Bay Area are Emeryville and San Jose. They have company in Los Angeles; Long Beach; Seattle; Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; Portland, Ore.; Vancouver, British Columbia; and elsewhere.
“For the last 50 years of development, clearly the car has been primary,” Angstadt said. “We’re beginning to shift out of that.”
November 2005: Rebar Art and Design stages San Francisco’s first parklet on Mission Street.
September 2006: PARK(ing) Day spreads beyond San Francisco to 13 cities worldwide; 81 parklets appear, including 34 in Bay Area.
November 2008: New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan visits S.F. and challenges leaders to develop new public plaza program.
May 2009: Mayor Gavin Newsom unveils The City’s first Pavement to Parks plaza at Castro and 17th streets.
March 2010: San Francisco’s first official parklet appears in front of Mojo Bicycle Café on Divisadero Street. It’s soon followed by another at Bartlett and 22nd streets.
May 2010: Planning Department again seeks proposals.
September 2010: San Francisco Planning Department issues first formal request for proposals for new program. June 2011 (approximate): The City’s first residential parklet appears on Valencia Street.
September 2011: Four more parklets are installed, bringing citywide total to 21. PARK(ing) Day celebrates seventh anniversary.
Nov.-Dec. 2011: 25 more parklets will be permitted, and proposals sought again.