Sacramento’s downtown is in the midst of a major facelift, and this year, local businesses are getting involved by transforming parking spots into artful public meeting spots.
Well, just two actually.
The City of Sacramento approved the installation of 10 semi-permanent, public parklets in on-street parking spaces in front of businesses through its Pilot Parklet Program, which aims to increase foot traffic downtown. Parklets are extensions of a business to the street — think stylish communal patios set up beyond the curb
The problem: Just two restaurants — Blackbird Kitchen + Beer Gallery and Capital Dime — have signed on.
“People were a little shy about doing it because they weren’t too sure of the impact,” says Matthew Winkler, general operations supervisor with Sacramento’s Department of Public Works. “They take a pretty big risk.”
The city’s pilot program is part of the greater development cycle in the downtown core that focuses on attracting patrons by making streets bike and pedestrian-friendly and enhancing the area as a unique, safe experience.
More pedestrians, improved public safety and an enhanced streetscapes are all tangible benefits that result from parklets. They directly contribute to a healthy operating environment for local businesses. A 2011 Parklet Impact Study study of San Francisco’s first installations found that at businesses with parklets, foot traffic increased (in one location by more than 40 percent), more people were found hanging out at the locations, and no businesses reported losing customers as a result of the few lost parking spaces.
By 2016, San Francisco could potentially have more than 100 parklets and plazas.
That all sounds well and good, but the big challenge has been getting business owners to buy in. “They all like the idea of it, but it’s not free,” Winkler says.
Owners or sponsors fully fund and maintain the structures, though they are completely open to any and all passersby who wish to use the space.
Designs vary widely and are meant to be creative and eye-catching: Blackbird’s parklet will resemble a pirate ship, mainsail and all, while Capital Dime’s will be more conventional and feature bistro lights that hang over the sidewalk. The architects of each have submitted final designs and are set to build in 2015.
In an effort to offset costs to business owners, the Sacramento Air Quality District is offering $1,000 grants to those who install two bike racks in their parklet, thereby promoting active transportation on the grid.
Still, depending on the size, design and materials used, Winkler says parklets in Sacramento can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $100,000 — a substantial price tag that can make businesses hesitant. And the permitting process alone can cost up to $3,000.
Launched in 2009, San Francisco’s Pavement to Parks is a similar program meant to provide congested neighborhoods with the open public spaces they sorely lack. P2P heavily influenced Sacramento’s own plans and also faced initial skepticism, says the program’s parklets and research lead Robin Abad-Ocubillo.
The program started with just five parklet and four plaza installations, the first of which was installed in front of a bike cafe in March 2010. Less than five years later, San Francisco is home to more than 50 parklets with around 35 more in some stage of design approval or permitting.
This spring when the city accepts new requests for parklet and plaza bids, it already expects more than 100.
“What’s important is that you’re doing something that’s straightforward and also beautiful, but the intent of parklets is to create more open space and places for people to gather in public; in American culture we really lack that sort of third space in our cities,” Abad-Ocubillo says.
Despite the slow start, Abad-Ocubillo says that just getting those first few projects on the ground for businesses and residents alike to see their impact “really quickly turns the tide in public opinion.” Sacramento, he says, should see interest spike once the first two parklets are built.
The true economic impact of parklets on the economic vitality of a neighborhood is something that Abad-Ocubillo says is always an initial primary concern. But he says that it is extremely difficult to measure in dollars and cents and misses the true point of parklet projects.
“Everyone gets distracted by the economic impact piece, and I think it’s important to emphasize that the intention of parklets is about public open space and equity,” Abad-Ocubillo says. “ That is the real benefit and value, and that’s unquantifiable.The reason we started this in San Francisco is because sidewalks are too narrow and there’s no place for neighbors to be with one another in public.”
It is an ethos that is in keeping with Sacramento’s emerging downtown, which in a couple years will have a new look as downtown development takes shape on both sides of Tower Bridge. Much of that development is meant to cater to and promote walkable streets, active and public transit, and a unique urban experience the area has traditionally lacked.
According to Winkler, if Sacramentans embrace this new aesthetic, more businesses in turn will sign on to the parklet program — because in the end it is meant to benefit everyone. And with ample parking downtown and midtown (at least compared to San Francisco), businesses take less of a hit losing two or three parking spaces.
“The economic engine of the whole thing is activating these streets,” Winkler says. “If San Francisco can pull it off, definitely Sacramento can do it.”
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