Parklets are popular but there are problems
The most popular parklet created during Covid is also the most problematic
Parklets have been a street feature born of Covid’s indoor restrictions. The first parklets were designed as a temporary experiment in San Francisco, well before Covid. Its first designers created a parklet in a parking space without the city’s permission and fed the meters themselves during the day.
“So much of the public space in our communities is devoted exclusively to cars,” said Paul Fritz, a local architect who has been a proponent of parklets in Sebastopol. “(Parklets were) just an idea to make people think about that fact that so much of our public land space is just all exclusively for cars.”
Because of Covid, fully permitted parklets have cropped up in lots of cities as a way of providing space for seating and socializing outdoors. What’s more, people like them.
Sebastopol has had three parklets for nearly two years:
South Main Street in front of Retrograde Coffee and Sunshine Cafe.
North Main Street in front of People’s Music (which closed in August).
Depot Street in front of Screamin’ Mimi’s.
Two of the three, South Main Street and Depot Street, have been particularly popular because they are used by the patrons of businesses that are nearby. They all share a common problem, however; the parklets are on roads managed by Caltrans, not the city.
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From Temporary to Permanent
Parklets were meant to be temporary, in part, by definition as an experiment, and then by Caltrans regulations, which granted temporary authorization for parklets on its roads during Covid. As Covid restrictions have been lifted, Caltrans said that cities must either remove the parklets by Dec. 31st, 2022, or apply for a new permanent permit. This permit has an annual fee of $6,000 per parklet. In addition, Caltrans has issued a set of guidelines for permanent parklets to ensure that parklets will serve as open, public spaces, just like a park.
At the September 20th Sebastopol City Council meeting, parklets were on the agenda and city staff asked the Council to make a decision on the future of the parklets so that they can apply for the permits before year end.
Nearly all who showed up for public comment were there to argue for or against the Depot Street parklet in front of Screamin’ Mimi’s. The majority were solidly enthusiastic for parklets and especially for the one on Depot Street, including the owners of Screamin’ Mimi’s.
Maraline “Mimi” Olsen said she was originally opposed to parklets in front of her ice cream store because she didn’t want to lose the parking spaces. Now she is a convert. “As a Sebastopolian, I love parklets.” Kurt Olsen, co-owner of the store, said the parklet was a “livability billboard” for the town.
Several expressed the idea that they want to live in a town where people are sitting outside, enjoying themselves. They want people coming through town to see it happening in town. “It is what a town is all about,” said Ted Luthin, who is Chief of the Design Review Board. “This is the best thing that ever happened to this town.”
The parklets might be considered “ugly” given their ad-hoc construction, said Lars Langberg, a local architect, who argued that permanent parklets could be made beautiful.
A few business owners near the Depot Street location opposed the parklet, citing trash, sidewalk access and parking as some of the concerns. Danielle Connor, owner of Retrograde, said in a written statement that the concerns were valid, but they could be addressed. Nonetheless, there was a minority who clearly opposed the parklet. Some felt that they unfairly favored a few businesses.
The $6,000 for an annual permit that Caltrans was asking for also upset those who wanted parklets to become permanent fixtures. They wanted the City staff push back against Caltrans.
In the end, the City Council voted to go ahead with applying for a permit for the South Main Street parklet in front of Retrograde and Sunshine Cafe, and not moving forward on permits for Depot Street and North Main Street.
As a result, Sebastopol will be down to one parklet in 2023, and the popular Depot Street parklet will go way, but there’s a bit more to the story.
The Problems with Depot Street
For one, it’s the location. It’s a triangle-shaped area next to Bodega Hwy’s westbound lanes and Hwy 116’s northbound lanes. It’s a cutout beside a busy intersection.
It’s not really a parklet because the enclosed area extends out into the street, beyond the parking spaces.
The Depot Street parklet serves almost exclusively the customers of Screamin’ Mimi’s, which some think is unfair. Yet, the people who gather there as customers are the ones choosing to hang out there. They like it there. Put the parklet in front of a bank and you’d have no one there.
In June, an SUV barrelled into the parklet. Fortunately, there were no injuries. The city made some modifications to the parklet to make it safer. Safety is an issue near such a busy intersection.
The short section of Depot Street was a problem even before it hosted a parklet. On this short street, a car could pass narrowly in front of the stores, which had several street parking spaces, and then exit one-way onto a busy Bodega Hwy heading west. A car once drove through the front of Screamin’ Mimi’s. It remains a problem, with or without a parklet.
Mayor Slayter said he’d like the city to obtain the Depot Street property from Caltrans and then turn it into a “pocket park.” City Manager Larry McLaughlin said that he had spoken to Caltrans in the past about the Depot Street area but “they wanted something in return from the city” to give over rights to the property. Other council members supported Mayor Slayter’s view but there were many unanswered questions.
The Council Votes
In July, the City Council had approved funding for the South Main Street parklet in its budget. It allocated $35,000 for staff time on design guidelines and project management, plus $50,000 for fees and construction costs of the South Main parklet. The City Staff estimated that each parklet would cost $16,000 in permitting costs and staff time in the first year. The resolution that the City Council voted on had four parts:
Move ahead with permitting for a permanent parklet on South Main Street.
Move ahead with permitting for a permanent parklet on Depot Street.
Move to develop design guidelines for parklets on both Caltrans streets and local city streets.
Decide what elements should be included in the Design Guidelines.
The vote came down to those who wanted to move forward right away and those who wanted to wait for more input. Councilmember Sarah Gurney was gung-ho on the current parklets because “people really liked them.” She wanted to vote yes on all four points. Mayor Michael Slayter joined her, saying that “paralysis by analysis” often meant that you do nothing.
Councilmember Neysa Hinton seemed the most skeptical of the city’s involvement in parklets, worried that they were spending taxpayer dollars to benefit a few businesses. She also mentioned the city’s liability for what happens in these spaces.
Councilmember Diana Rich was positive about parklets, saying that she heard from people that they created “community, commerce and joy.” But she was not ready to move forward on the permitting process. She wanted additional design work to be done first and she wasn’t sure that these three parklets were the best locations. She called for input from the Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Association.
Councilmember Una Glass wondered if the name “parklet” was a problem, and the cause of Caltrans wanting to charge fees. What if the area might be called a “bulb-out,” an area definined for passage of pedestrians? Councilmember Glass said several times that she prefered a small park on Depot Street, which would involve getting agreement from Caltrans.
The motion, put forward by Councilmember Hinton, included points 1, 3, and 4 above —- dropping Depot Street from the motion. That motion passed unanimously.
Councilmember Gurney said that the Council should be clear with the public about its decision on the Depot Street parklet. She made a new motion to move forward on applying for a Caltrans permit for the Depot Street parklet. Mayor Slayter seconded the motion and asked staff to confirm that making the application did not require the city to write a check and that the application could be withdrawn at any time. At that moment, it seemed like everyone had made their decision but Councilmember Glass could go either way. When she voted “no,” the motion to move forward with Depot Street failed to pass.
Mayor Slayter then made a new motion that would direct staff to approach Caltrans about abandonment of their rights to the Depot Street right-of-way with eventual city acquistion of the property. The motion passed unanimously. It passed easily because it wasn’t backed by any kind of commitment.
About three hours after the discussion began, the City Council moved to the next item on the agenda.
A Good Problem
Will newly elected members of the Council want to push forward the creation of a park in place of a parklet? The two strong supporters of the Depot Street parklet, Councilmembers Gurney and Slayter, will be out of office, along with Councilmember Glass.
Depot Street can be a good kind of problem, one that could be solved because it has such strong support in the community. Paul Fritz, the proponent of parklets in Sebastopol, is not optimistic that anything will happen once the current parklets are taken away.
Only the memory of this Covid-era parklet will be all that’s left for the people who once enjoyed it.
Video of City Council Meeting (the parklets discussion begins at 1:05 into the video)