Oakland Looks to Restart Its Faltered Parklet Program

Bikes and seating share space at the parklet on Grand Avenue in Oakland. Photos: Melanie Curry

The success of PARK(ing) Day got a lot of communities excited about the possibilities of reusing street space for something other than car storage. In cities like San Francisco and Oakland, many merchants were attracted to the idea of giving up a couple of parking spots in order to provide a nice place to gather and increase the visibility of their business.

In late 2011, Oakland’s planning department started a pilot program to help businesses and community members create parklets. Seven interested parties applied for permits, but over three years later, a grand total of just two parklets have been built.

The story of those unbuilt parklets can be a lesson in how a simple idea can become overly complex when too many stakeholders and government entities are involved. Or maybe a parklet is just not as cheap and easy to build as it looks at first.

In front of Farley’s East on Grand Avenue, a wooden platform holds tables, chairs, and hanging bike racks. It’s frequently full of people hanging out, drinking coffee, and working on laptops. Instead of two cars, it’s a vibrant urban place — a pleasant, inviting spot for people to relax.

Oakland’s other parklet sits on 40th Street between Telegraph and Broadway, fronting several popular businesses. Mounted on the parklet is a plaque that lists its sponsors and contributors, including several businesses across the street.

But Oakland’s webpage on parklets only instructs prospective parklet builders to ”stay tuned for announcements” because the application process is closed. A map shows the two completed parklets, plus two others “coming soon” and another labeled “final permit not yet approved.” The map was last updated in October of 2012.

Neighbors and merchants were excited for a planned but unbuilt parklet on Lakeshore Avenue in front of Arizmendi Bakery. “A whole group of neighbors worked really hard for it,” said Pamela Drake of the Lakeshore Avenue Business Improvement District. Money had even been secured for the permit fees, but a design problem arose.

The parklet on Grand Avenue.

One of the parking spaces the parklet would occupy was reserved for handicapped placard holders, which had ramp requirements that made it impossible to move elsewhere, according to Laura Kaminsky, the planner in charge of Oakland’s parklet program.

“We were willing to give up a parking space,” said Drake, “but the city wouldn’t move it to the other side of the street.”

Solutions were offered, including moving the parklet or dividing it in two, but they were shot down for various reasons, including the parklet being too small, and losing Chipotle as a sponsor. Community interest and energy waned as time went on.

“It wasn’t the city’s fault,” said Drake. “They tried to help, but there were just too many other things going on.”

A different but equally fatal set of problems plagued the other planned parklet in front of the Actual Cafe at Alcatraz and San Pablo Avenues.

“We applied for the permit and were ready to begin construction,” said Sal Bednarz, the cafe’s owner. “But by the time we got the permit we’d started construction on our new restaurant next door,” so they put off working on the parklet, he said. In the meantime, the East Bay Municipal Utility District tore up the pavement along Alcatraz and installed a fire hydrant where the parklet was planned in the process. “We had no idea they were about to do this, and the city didn’t tell us when we got the permit,” said Bednarz.

Each proposed solution had its own complications. The cafe owners didn’t want to move it up the street along Alcatraz, as that would put it farther from their entrance. “And we’d have to remove a few parking spaces,” said Bednarz. Then they thought of a better idea: move it around the corner to San Pablo. There it would be even more visible, as San Pablo is a busier street. It would be usable by neighboring businesses on San Pablo, and the pavement is flatter, which makes construction simpler.

But San Pablo is also State Highway 123, which means it’s under the control of Caltrans. “Caltrans’ requirements are outscale for a parklet,” said Bednarz. Those include an additional encroachment permit from Caltrans, a new set of engineering drawings done to Caltrans specifications, and a Caltrans-approved contractor to build the parklet instead of doing it themselves. All of which would drive up the cost of construction quite a bit — “One thousand percent is a conservative estimate,” said Bednarz.

“The problem I have is that I am unable to identify the person at Caltrans who can get creative and help us create a pilot project. I’ve spoken to several people who’ve been somewhat helpful and interested, but they don’t know how to make this happen,” he said.

For now, there is no long-desired parklet there, and its future is up in the air. “I would either like to get permission for the parklet and actually put it in, or decide that we’re not going to be able to do it and get my permit fees back from Oakland, since the city screwed up by not telling us about EBMUD,”  said Bednarz.

The 40th Street parklet. (Note: The rustic log bench is not blocking the path of pedestrians on the sidewalk.)

A third parklet, in front of several galleries along 25th Street in the heart of the Art Murmur district, may truly be “coming soon.”

“As of now we are waiting on the owners to sign the documents and we should have a permit within the month,” said Drew Mickel, vice president of development at Reynolds and Brown, the owner of the building. “We hope to begin construction with six weeks.”

Cost was a factor in the delay on this parklet, said Mickel. “It was three times more expensive than we thought it would be, due to code requirements, the angles of the street and platform requiring some engineering, and also the design of the overall structure.”

Los Angeles’ People Street program, which provides “kits” of basic drawings and guidelines to ease the permit process, estimates the average cost of constructing a parklet to be between $40,000 and $80,000, not including design and required maintenance.

Although Mickel is excited about the possibilities of livening up the street, the tenants have not always been so sure. “All of them were interested at first, but several are struggling with the idea of giving up a parking spot,” he said.

As for Oakland’s parklet program, “stay tuned” indeed. Kaminsky, who manages the program, has been busy on an unusual number of other projects, and hopes to turn her attention to a second application round for the pilot program over the summer. “The intention was to create a more permanent program off the pilot,” she said. “But it’s difficult to do that when we don’t have results to present to council to say whether it’s working well. We’ve had lots of interest in the meanwhile so we’re thinking of extending the pilot program.”

Other cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles have been learning, too, and their programs can be used as models. “We know that one thing we need is to create time limits within which a parklet has to be built,” said Kaminsky, “and as part of the application you have to show that you have funds available. A lot of people don’t realize how expensive it can be and how long it takes.”