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.”

  • Matt Chambers

    It’s sad that I’m advocating putting resources where they’re needed the most using measurable metrics and it evokes so much drama. THE HORROR.

  • lasertag

    I was just throwing my support behind sideshows. So much better for oakland that parklets. 🙂

  • Whatever you say, chief. I’ll just leave these here and be on my way.
    https://flic.kr/p/9JPY72
    https://flic.kr/p/gj2eq1

  • @Prinzrob – Actual’s expansion was more the establishment of a different (and successful) restaurant. Of course this brings more people to the block and a parklet can only help there.

  • @Prinzrob – Here’s my photo of the (stolen) parklet, but it’s a bit blurry. There are detail pics that follow in the stream:
    https://flic.kr/p/9JSMqu

  • Stew javy

    you ol knuckle head…these flicks are from SF which in the end proves my point. You all are trying to make Oakland in SF or LA. Its not. One day you may succeed but then people will look around and say “where did all the culture go?” Its like mcdonalds…you want to go to any city and have it look exactly the same as all the other cities in the State. Thats lame brother. Look at Oakland’s history before you try to pound YOUR ideas of what Oakland should be down the throats of those who tradinonally have no voice and no capital to protect THEIR OWN CULTURES!!! ITs like White conquest all over again. if you history you would feel what I am saying homie.

  • Stew javy

    at least sideshows are original…outsides always tryn to tell us how do do us…

  • Stew javy

    Matt is onpoint!

    ~30year old Oakland Native

  • Stew javy

    get em!

  • Stew javy

    all you hipster white folks need to go over to the deep east and start doing something for Oakland and not just for your own neighborhood. Was good with a pancake breakfest for underprivlaaged kids? or protection from the OPD? naw all ya’ll care about it parklets…you all sound like congress…TOTALLY DETACHED FROM REALITY…. help me raise my fellow towners outta poverty revitalize traditionally ethnic neighborhoods WITHOUT MOVING WHITE PEOLE IN…and then I might help you with this damn parklet rubbish…i cant even beleive parklet is a word now…i feel like a loser even saying it.

  • Top pic is SF, bottom pic is Oakland.

    Parking cars is not a culture.

  • lukebc

    YOU NEED to work on your sarcasm.

  • lukebc

    “matt chamber” I’m not going to beat around the bush: YOU SIR ARE A MORON. “Density” HAS NOTHING to due with whether or not a parklet should exist AND WORK. There are parklets in the western side of San Francisco that exists in commercial districts with far less pedestrian traffic than what College Avenue gets and yet the parklets are thriving. I KNOW that you have no clue where or what Noriega street is in San Francisco given you are an imbecile, but at where Noriega street almost meets the ocean, a small bakery built a parklet that is mobbed pretty much every day during operating hours of the bakery. And yet the commercial district on Noriega has about as much pedestrian traffic ALL THE TIME as Broadway and 12 on a Sunday morning. Before the parklet was built there people would go to the bakery and get what they got and then disperse out (presumably home), but now persons get what they get and go out to the parklet where they end up conversing with strangers. IN FACT the parklet on Noriega has become a defacto community neighborhood location. On weekends mom and/or dads bring their children to the parklet to let their kids play at the parklet. THAT IS WHY THE PARKLET THERE IS SO POPULAR AND CROWDED. Another parklet BEING built in the western side of San Francisco is going up in front of a popular cafe where there was already sidewalk seating. The parklet is NOT even finished (probably around 80% finished) AND YET PEOPLE ARE ABANDONING THE SIDEWALK CHAIRS AND USING THE *UNCOMPLETED* PARKLET. ALL of YOUR BULLSHEET about “people in Oakland are different from people in San Francisco” is JUST THAT: PURE BULLSHEET. Part of the reason that SFs parklet program is more successful is that SF laid out VERY careful guidelines to would be parklet builders as what criteria has to be met JUST TO *CONSIDER* INSTALLING A PARKLET. So would-be parklet builders in San Francisco read those guidelines and right away determine that “yes we meet the criteria so parklet for us” while the “we don’t meet the criteria so no parklet for us” AND THE NOTS DON’T EVEN BOTHER GOING ANY FURTHER. It’s pretty obvious from what was written here that Oakland didn’t lay out very specific guidelines for installing a parklet and thus when persons applied for parklets, Oakland didn’t study what was going on at the location for the would-be parklet and said yes to the applicant and the end result is “the problems” arose when said applicant started the footwork to building the parklet. It’s IDIOTS LIKE YOU “mattchambers” that come up with IDIOTIC STUPID MORONIC TOTALLY REMOVED FROM REALITY “reasons” that ARE completely STUPID. Try THINKING in SIMPLE LOGICAL TERMS and YOU won’t end up making yourself the fluckwit that YOU make yourself out to BE.

  • lasertag

    PLEASE understand I say this with sarcasm.

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