Oakland Hopes to Approve City’s First Parklet by September

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Photo: Actual Cafe's temporary parklet on PARK(ing) Day 2010 could be a real parklet by PARK(ing) Day 2011.

Just over one year after San Francisco’s first parklet was installed outside Mojo Cafe, East Bay streets are conspicuously lacking these popular islands of livable public space. That’s about to change.

This week, Oakland is expected to take the first step toward bringing parklets to the sunny side of the Bay, convening a special cross-department city task force on Thursday. Its mission is to draft a new ordinance that would allow Oakland to permit parklets as a unique type of encroachment.

“We had a lot of staff members who all thought it was a great idea, and they got together to figure out how to do it,” explained Eric Angstadt, deputy director of Oakland’s Planning and Zoning Division.

Representatives of several departments were invited, including Building Services, Planning, Parks and Recreation, and Police, but the heavy lifting, according to Angstadt, will likely come from the Community and Economic Development (CEDA) and Public Works agencies.

The group’s leadership intends to present a draft ordinance to the City Council before the council’s summer recess at the end of July. The Oakland City Council requires at least two months to “agendize” items, a deadline that is less than three weeks away. Angstadt is optimistic that the staff’s personal interest in seeing parklets come to Oakland will motivate the process to keep a brisk pace.

“If all went well, there’s the possibility people could have them in for the late season, in late August and September, when we have that second wave of nice weather,” Angstadt continues. “If that doesn’t work out, there’s plenty of time to have it in place for next year.”

The primary obstacle to getting parklets approved in Oakland thus far has been determining the city department responsible for permitting parklets. Are parklets a design issue, falling under the purview of the Planning Department? Or is it a Public Works Agency matter, because parklets pertain to street space?

The choice of department jurisdiction will affect the participants in the final permitting process. If the ordinance falls under the Planning Department, it would be inserted into the zoning code. If the ordinance is put under Public Works, it would be part of the Streets and Sidewalk Use Regulations. Zoning requires the landlords to get involved, whereas an encroachment can deal exclusively with the tenant business.

Oakland’s task force is looking closely at San Francisco’s parklet approval process. In San Francisco, the Pavement to Parks program, run jointly by the Department of Public Works and the Planning Department, intermittently issues a request for proposals for new parklets. Business owners, with proof of neighborhood support, propose their designs and the P2P program issues permits to the most feasible projects. Business owners are responsible for constructing the parklets and meeting safety requirements.

The first question among many Oakland city staffers is how it should permit parklets in metered parking spaces. After all, it’s the busy neighborhoods with competing uses that have the most to gain from parklets.

San Francisco managed to avoid this issue in some installations by putting parklets in unmetered parking spaces or creating new, metered parking to mitigate the revenue loss. The Municipal Transportation Agency accepts the loss of parking revenue for parklets, acknowledging that the impact of eight parklets in San Francisco’s 389,000 parking spaces is minuscule.

Some businesses and neighbors who were initially skeptical and concerned about the loss of parking at the Mojo Cafe parklet changed their minds when the owner reported large increases in business and foot traffic, and neighbors began to clamor for similar improvements.  As Oakland decides how to balance the demand for these economic catalysts and streetscape improvements, the city will have the benefit of San Francisco’s positive experiences.

The parklet permit will hopefully be a departure from Oakland’s existing cache of permits, which only provide for the extension of private businesses into the public space. Andres Power, project manager of the San Francisco Pavement to Parks Program, advises that any new program consider these private improvements to the public space, but that the spaces remain firmly public.

“The policy driver is to provide public space, not cafe space,” explains Power. “If the parklet were to be private, that would be an uncompensated public degradation for the benefit of a private entity.”

Still smarting from an arduous 18-month minor encroachment process to put up sidewalk tables and chairs, Sal Bednarz of Actual Café is anxious to install a parklet and wants the task force to follow the San Francisco model. For Bednarz, September is not soon enough.

Bednarz, right, with volunteers constructing the portable parklet.

Inspired by PARK(ing) Day, Bednarz envisions filling an unattractive and an out of service AC Transit bus stop that abuts his cafe on Alcatraz Avenue with an amenity for the neighborhood and his customers to enjoy. Bednarz set out to build a portable parklet for special events to raise support for a more permanent structure.

After working with Bednarz on PARK(ing) Day, Walk Oakland Bike Oakland (WOBO) made the parklet permit one of its top goals for 2011, atrracting a small pool of talent hoping to contribute their skills to the cause.

Urban designers Amit Price Patel, Amanda Loper, and Ian Dunn sketched a site plan. Bednarz contacted the Place for Sustainable Living, a hub for eco-art and community resiliencys, which provided tools and workspace. Volunteers from WOBO, the East Bay Bicycle Coalition, and the neighborhood contributed sweat equity to reclaimed lumber purchased from the Reuse People Store in East Oakland, while Actual Café served coffee and sandwiches.

“We know our neighborhood and city will benefit from parklet construction,” writes Bednarz. “We hope that Mayor Quan or the councilmembers will see what we’re doing and pave the way for us and other businesses like ours – it seems like a no-brainer.”

Oakland’s first semi-official parklet will debut at the Bike Away From Work Party in Old Oakland on Thursday evening, before a visit to its hopeful home on Alcatraz during a “Parklet Love In” at Actual Café Sunday afternoon. Once the city starts issuing permits, the portable parklet could earn the right to sit in the bus stop more permanently.

Other business owners are waiting to see how and when a permit process develops. Without an official process from the City of Oakland, some business owners conducted some frustrating research on their own.

Svea Lin Soll, owner of the Swarm Gallery near Jack London Square, read about parklets online, but grew discouraged as she calculated it would cost over $20,000 to hire art and design activist collective Rebar Group to build one outside her gallery.

Power rejected the notion that undertaking a parklet must be so costly, supporting the approach taken by Actual Café. He said some merchants are reaching out to neighbors for design and construction help.

“I’ve heard anecdotally that some people are leveraging their connections with the architect on the block, or the friend of a friend that’s a metallurgist. That definitely helps defray the cost.”

Newly inspired by the city’s new task force, Soll mused how Oakland’s inevitable parklets will differ from San Francisco’s, like the city itself: “The Oakland aesthetic is very much found objects and gathering stuff from industrial areas. It’s a peer and equal to San Francisco, but just different. Oakland is more grassroots.”

Indeed, it might have taken over a year of San Francisco’s example, but thanks to a proof of concept across the Bay, Oakland residents may be able to enjoy their streets a little bit more before the end of this year.