From Park(ing) Day to Permit: San Francisco’s Parklets Redefine Public Space

The parklet in front of Mojo Bicycle Cafe. Photo: Matthe Roth

The parklet in front of Mojo Bicycle Cafe. Photo: Matthew Roth

In a city with an appetite for experimentation, San Francisco’s parklets are particularly fascinating. What began as a guerrilla arts intervention meant to demonstrate the need for more public open space has now become a fully permitted procedure for extending sidewalks into the street and has the small business community, which routinely opposes removing parking or charging more for it, aflutter with interest.

During the 5th annual Park(ing) Day in September this year, the Planning Department announced it had opened a request for proposals (RFP) period seeking applications from interested parties who wanted to re-purpose the parking in front of their buildings to build and manage parklets.

The RFP encouraged community benefit districts, businesses and non-profits to submit preliminary designs for parklets, which would be reviewed by a select committee representing various departments in the city, including the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which manages parking and runs Muni and the Department of Public Works (DPW).

Applicants were encouraged to view parklets as sidewalk furniture meant to enhance public space. From the RFP: “Parklets are intended to provide space for people to sit, relax and enjoy the city around them, especially where narrow sidewalks would otherwise preclude such activities. They are intended to be seen as pieces of street furniture, providing aesthetic enhancements to the overall streetscape.”

Despite the long list of requirements and costs that can be in the tens of thousands of dollars, when the RFP closed at the end of October, city planners who had expected between 20 and 25 applications were pleasantly surprised when they received 42. According to the Planning Department’s Andres Power, the project manager who guided the process of formalizing temporary parklets and plazas through Pavement to Parks, the strong interest from the public was impressive, especially given how little publicity the city had done.

“Up until now, there’s been three projects on the ground and those have materialized quite a bit of interest,” said Power. “It clearly demonstrates there is a lot of latent demand for this.”

Kit Hodge, the director of the Great Streets Project, which has coordinated outreach to merchants with the city, agreed with Power that the demand for parklets was already strong and would become stronger as more of them are constructed.

“San Francisco should be lauded for embracing this experiment and to be open to move from simple experiment to more wider-spread projects and institutionalizing the process in the city,” said Hodge, who noted the public private partnership for enhancing and creating public spaces was not unique to San Francisco, but had a unique history here because of its Park(ing) Day origins. Hodge said the process of outreaching to businesses, which she and her interns had done for months, was building important connections with businesses that might not otherwise consider the use of the parking spaces in front of their buildings for anything but parking.

“One of the appealing things about this is that it’s not a top-down initiative. It doesn’t take a huge amount of public resources to do the projects. It’s finding a way to leverage outside resources and interest to make this happen,” she said.

She also argued that the most important determination of success or failure for the spaces would result from how well they were managed. Hodge referenced famous public spaces in New York City, such as Bryant Park and the newly pedestrianized portions of Broadway in Times Square, suggesting that much of the success of those spaces came from the stewardship of the business improvement districts that maintain them.

“We need to continue to work with organizations that have that management capability,” she said. “Great spaces are 80 percent management, 20 percent design.”

With the transition to a formal permitting process and the completion of various parklets and temporary plazas throughout the city, the Pavement to Parks trials have technically been completed, though Power said the city will remain an active partner in encouraging private parties to build parklets and it will assure the quality construction and monitor them as they are used. Just like any other revocable permit, say for sidewalk dining, if the permit applicant fails to fulfill their duties under the permit, the project can be modified or shut down.

A parklet must abide by various specifications, including size and location. The parklet must be not be at street corners and should be on streets with parallel parking and speed limits at 25 miles per hour or below. The parklet manager must maintain public access at all times, have numerous safety requirements and must not extend more than 6 feet from the curb. It can replace yellow or blue zones so long as there are adjacent parking spaces where those zones can be relocated and they can be in white and green zones as long as the party initially requesting those zones agrees to re-purpose them.

Applicants are required to take out $1 million in liability insurance, naming the City and County of San Francisco as additional insured. Applicants will have to pay for the construction of the parklets and will be required to maintain them, including the storage of any movable tables and chairs that might be used in the space.

Power said only five of the applications would be disqualified outright due to failure to meet core specifications, though he said the city would work with the applicants to improve their project should the city open another RFP. Another six projects were deficient in some manner, so the city was working to improve those applications to move forward with them. For the remaining 31 projects, the DPW will post fliers on the streets around the proposed locations seeking public feedback. If there is a complaint sometime in that period, the DPW will hold a public hearing, after which Director Ed Reiskin will make the final determination on whether or not the applicant can proceed. For those projects without opposition, design and construction can begin imminently.

While Power acknowledged the city expected some of the applicants wouldn’t be able to find the money needed for construction, he was confident most of the projects would be built after approval. According to Power, most of the applications came from businesses, with good distribution throughout the city. As would be expected, many submissions came from the Mission and North Beach, where two parklets have already been installed by Rebar, but Power was also happy to get five applications from The Sunset, four from the Tenderloin and one from Dogpatch. Power was surprised there were no applications in the Richmond or the Southeast neighborhoods and said the city would specifically target outreach there for the next round.

For Rebar’s Blaine Merker, the transformation of an art project into a formal permitting procedure that significantly transforms public space was exciting. He applauded Power and other city planners who had worked to facilitate the process. He also hoped the city would learn from the temporary measures that came from experimentation in a downturn economy to build more permanent public spaces in unusual places  when the budget is more flush.

“It’s very exciting that the city of San Francisco has stepped up to the creative challenge of codifying what started with Park(ing) day,” said Merker. He also said he hoped the city would find a way to support applicants in the future who might not be able to afford the initial capital outlay for constructing a parklet but would be excellent stewards of them.

“When the burden to create public space is shifted from the public to the private sector, it introduces the bottom line equation for merchants. How much is this going to increase my business, how long is it going to take me to pay it off. For smaller merchants, I can imagine this will create a problem,” said Merker. “Perhaps the city could come up with a fund to help merchants who can’t afford a large investment to specifically invest in the public realm and not just amenities that benefit their business as they look to the bottom line.”

Merker also argued that parklets shouldn’t be a stand-in for good public spaces, but a lesson in creating quality aesthetic improvements to the streetscape during lean economic times.

“When we as a city can’t afford to do much in the way of capital investments, this is a good time to experiment with temporary, light infrastructure,” he said. “I hope when things pick up and we can afford to spend more on infrastructure, we can take the lessons we’re learning now to build world class public spaces.”