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In Park(ing) Day’s Seventh Year, Parklets Now a San Francisco Institution

This now-normal scene at a parklet on California and Fillmore Streets in Pacific Heights shows how far parklets have come from the originally "radical" interventions of Park(ing) Day. Photo: Aaron Bialick

When Park(ing) Day started in San Francisco seven years ago, setting up camp on a sliver of street space normally reserved for storing cars was a somewhat radical idea. But these days, evidence of the movement’s continuing success can be seen year-round with more than 35 (and counting) semi-permanent, city-sanctioned parklets around the city.

Park(ing) Day returns again tomorrow, and dozens of parking spaces around the city will be reclaimed as public gathering spots. San Franciscans have embraced the event over the years, and the city’s parklet program is wildly popular among merchants, who clamor for a permit to bring a vibrant public gathering space in front of their store. It seems a world away from the first time Rebar, an art collective, decided to introduce Park(ing) Day by plugging a parking meter for a place to lay down some few rugs, plots of sod, chairs and art pieces.

A Park(ing) Day spot in front of Ritual Coffee on Valencia Street in 2009. A parklet being installed there will exist year-round. Photo: Tristan C/Flickr

“What has been really gratifying is that Park(ing) Day, which began as a guerilla art project, has been adopted by cities and integrated into their official planning strategies,” said Blaine Merker, a principal at Rebar. “A relatively modest art intervention has changed the way cities conceive, organize and use public space.”

By now, parklets are a uniquely ubiquitous institution in San Francisco. The SF Planning Department’s Pavement to Parks program continues to grant permits through a streamlined permit application process, resulting in dozens of uniquely designed spaces popping up around the city. The city also installed a “mega parklet” promenade along three blocks of Powell Street, San Francisco’s most crowded pedestrian thoroughfare. A multi-agency website launched in May,, even lays out a simple guide for merchants (and residents) to apply for parklets, among other street improvements.

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PARK(ing) Day 2011 in San Francisco: “Time to Reclaim the Streets”

A "park, er, farm" outside Ritual Coffee Roasters on Valencia. Ritual, a regular participant in PARK(ing) Day, is scheduled to get a permanent parklet within the next year. Photos by Bryan Goebel.

People all over San Francisco reclaimed metered parking spaces normally reserved for private automobiles today, and transformed them into living spaces for people to mark PARK(ing) Day, one of the most celebrated livable streets events that began here six years ago, and sparked a worldwide movement.

“It’s exciting to see how in just a very few years the idea of PARK(ing) Day has gone from a very subversive, radical proposition to something that’s routine and mainstream,” said Andy Thornley, policy director for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, as he unlocked his bike in front of SPUR‘s temporary park.

Indeed, some of the businesses that have set up temporary parks for PARK(ing) Day over the years now have permanent parklets as part of San Francisco’s revolutionary Pavement to Parks and parklet program. What was invented by the renowned artist and design collective Rebar in 2005 is now a San Francisco institution.

Outside the SPUR Urban Center on Mission Street, a line began forming around noon, under sunny skies, for chicken mole, part of a traveling food installation put together by artists Sergio De La Torre and Chris Treggiari. The entire installation — food, tables, chairs, grill — was transported via one cargo bike from 17th and Folsom to Mission and 3rd. There were plans to serve 100 people.

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Eyes on the Street: Rebar Crews Grace Columbus Ave. with Second Parklet

The Rebar crew assembles the parklet. Photo: Aaron Bialick

Within a span of just a few hours, a new parklet has transformed a part of Columbus Avenue in North Beach. Fronting Caffe Roma, it’s the second project to bring some breathing room to choked sidewalks on a section where cafe and restaurant life fill one of the city’s densest and most historic neighborhoods.

“Somebody called it our own little Via Veneto,” said Tony Roma, the owner of Caffe Roma. “If you’re familiar with Via Veneto in Rome, it’s open to the cafes and people sit down outside in the sun and drink their spritz.”

“So if we’re gonna get a warm weekend, here’s the place to do it.”

The parklet, designed and installed by the art and architecture collective Rebar Group, features a section of tables and chairs for the public to relax, eat and drink, while greenery in the rest of the area is intended to have more of a “park” feel, said Roma.

Søren Schaumburg Jensen, a Rebar Group intern and landscape architecture student from Copenhagen, Denmark, assisted with the project. “I really like the module concept of parklets,” he said. “It can be temporary, and you can exchange modules if you want to and move them.”

“I think Copenhagen could learn a lot from taking up parking spaces and extending the sidewalk like this,” he added, to the surprise of project manager Noah Brezel and myself.

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SF’s Proposal to Reduce Blight Will Create a Tenuous Balance

201_Folsom.jpgArtist's rendering of 201 Folsom Street, a project advocates and community leaders oppose as a recipient of a Green Development Agreement. Image: Heller-Manus Architects.
Among several initiatives San Francisco has developed to put an aesthetically pleasing face on the economic downturn, such as Art in Storefronts, which brightens shuttered retail spaces with murals, a new effort to utilize empty lots for green space, called Green Development Agreements (Green DAs), would transform the way the city's development approval process works, a move some open-space advocates question.

As John King has reported in the Chronicle, the idea for Green DAs was developed by Mayor Gavin Newsom's Office Economic and Workforce Development (MOEWD) in coordination with various developers, landscape architects and community groups and would open vacant lots where the credit crunch has stalled construction to the public for interim uses such as community gardens and tree nurseries. 

In exchange for interim green space and community use on the lots, a developer will enter into a development agreement with the city that makes it much easier for the project to retain existing financial backing and secure future money when the lending market improves. Development agreements are binding commitments that allow a project to move forward as approved by the Planning Commission no matter what new legislation might be passed between granting of development entitlements and the time needed to complete the project.

According to MOEWD's Michael Yarne, development agreements are a common tool outside of San Francisco and their value to a developer becomes particularly evident when proposals arise like Board of Supervisors President David Chiu's shadow legislation.

If Chiu had proceeded with his ballot initiative to limit shadows on public parks, said Yarne, much of the Transbay Transit Center site would have been impossible to build as approved because the towers are so tall. The Trinity Plaza Apartments project in the mid-Market Street area, on the other hand, would have been just fine because its developer worked with housing advocates and the city to craft a development agreement in exchange for increased affordable housing units.

"The development agreement as a legal tool is the equivalent to a binding contract," said Yarne. "If attitudes change or boards change, that project is guaranteed to go forward."



Demand for Trial Plazas Increases as Lower Potrero Design is Revealed

Showplace_triangle_rebar_1_small.jpgConceptual rendering of Lower Potrero trial plaza at 16th Street and 8th Street. View from 16th Street, Axis Cafe on right, Wolfe Cafe on left, under billboard. Image: Rebar Art Collective.

When the 17th Street and Castro Street trial Pavement to Parks plaza was implemented in San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom said at the press conference that he would expedite two more plazas immediately, and if the public used them and clamored for more, he would instruct his agencies to build them. Apparently, he wasn't grandstanding.

The first three plaza locations were selected strategically because they had years of community planning behind them and the city expected there would be little resistance to making the changes. In fact, they hoped to see the exact results they are seeing.

"People are banging down the doors, community groups and professionals are clamoring to make more happen," said Ed Reiskin, Director of the Department of Public Works (DPW) and one of the central catalysts in moving the projects forward. "That to me is a sign of something good. That's a good problem to have."

Reiskin pointed to the Mason Street park as an example of community groups taking advantage of a trial traffic closure to green their neighborhood. "It was just meant to be a street closure, throw up some orange plastic bollards and measure the traffic impacts. But the community rose up and in a few hours turned an otherwise undesirable space into a community space."

There is so much interest in opening up unused street space and turning it into public open space that the city agencies involved in selecting the projects told Streetsblog that they are getting lobbied at City Hall by supervisors and by the general public at community meetings around the city.

"I haven't solicited any design input," said Andres Power, project manager from the Planning Department for the trial plazas at San Jose/Guerrero and 16th Street/8th Street in Lower Potrero. "But I have a list of 25 landscape architects willing to do the next design."