City Parklets: Who Needs a Space to Park, Anyway?

These creative uses for city parking spaces are a bit controversial
Posted August 04, 2014
A parklet in the Chinatown-International District

It’s called a parklet and it’s got some people confused. Jennifer Wieland, public space program manager at SDOT, attributes the confusion to a misunderstanding of what parklets actually are. “They’re small public spaces that fit in easily with the urban landscape and are designed to have a very small impact on the streetscape.”

Started as a pilot program by the city (the original program began in San Francisco in 2005 by art collective Rebar), parklets turn parking spaces into park space (they are temporary structures with permits renewed annually). Some parklets, like the one that opened in June in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District, are more traditional in design (think Parisian café-style seating), while others, like the version that ice cream shop Molly Moon’s in Wallingford envisioned, are more unique: it proposed a grassy knoll—more sculptural than architectural—where ice-cream lovers can enjoy their cones. Think of them as community-based art projects or installations, where anyone can propose and contribute to the final product. However, Wieland says that everyone who is currently proposing a project is enlisting the help of Seattle architects or landscape design firms to construct their urban retreat.

Seattle’s skyline may be awash with cranes and new development, but this local project doesn’t require them. Look for parklets in the near future at Molly Wizenberg’s pizza place Delancey in Ballard, 24-hour diner Lost Lake Lounge on Capitol Hill, and espresso/waffle joint-slash-community hub Cortona Café in the Central District, along with 10 more at various locations around the city.

Seattle’s neighborhood blogs are buzzing with the pros and cons of the program, and we listed a few in our August 2014 article here. Among the top concerns is how parklets will affect parking. On average, a parklet will use one to two parking spaces, but of the projects currently in the works, Wieland says only two applicants proposed using more than two spaces. And what about the loss of city revenue from parking spots in terms of meters and citations? Wieland adds that SDOT made the policy decision early on that the increase in public green space for pedestrians was a reasonable exchange for the city’s loss of revenue (revenue loss was estimated at about $4,600 per spot annually in San Francisco’s Mission area, for example).

Another concern wafting around is linked to Seattle’s new pot industry: The WA Liquor Control Board restricts the construction of a pot store within 1000 feet of—among other things—a park. Here’s where it gets confusing: is a parklet a park or isn’t it? According to Wieland, a parklet isn’t technically a city park but rather a public right of way that’s run by a different department and therefore is “as much a park as a bench and a planting strip.” (In other words, the rumor that having a parklet near a pot dispensary is problematic is “absolutely false.”) Pot smokers, rest assured—though you still can’t smoke that joint in a city parklet.

As you’re cruising around the city this summer, let us know whether you think the parklets are a boon to the city or a burden. You can weigh in on the issue in the comments.

Did you know? An outgrowth of Rebar’s parklet program, Park(ing) Day is now an international design initiative that allows urban dwellers to turn a parking space into a park for a day. This year it’s happening in Seattle on September 19 in conjunction with the Seattle Design Festival (applications accepted until August 29; for more information go here). Roll out your grass turf or set up a giant Twister game…(almost) anything goes! The best part? You might be able to use it as a prototype for a more permanent parklet later.