Friday, May 29, 2015

The Rise of the Parklet

A new and innovative urban design solution looking for a problem is underway in many cities from San Francisco to Philadelphia—the parklet. They have also found a place in Brazil and elsewhere. They are nothing more than taking back the street from the car, one parking stall at a time.

This all started (or so claimed) in 2005 when a San Francisco design company took over a parking stall (by feeding the meters all day) and installing a pop-up park with maybe 176 square feet of sod, benches, and boxed trees. From this radical event it grew nationally until 2010 when San Francisco completed its first permanent parklet (and accompanying manuals, guidelines, and nascent bureaucracy). A revolution began and cities nationwide began exploring opportunities in their downtowns and high traffic areas.

This was not without some concern by local businesses afraid to lose that one stall right in front of their door. But cities used an interesting tactic; if the business (usually a coffee shop or deli) was willing to “own” the parklet, they could use it to expand their customer seats and directly affect their bottom line. Some businesses have even offered to pay for the upgrades and improvements. Costs can run all over the place, from remedial projects that cost $15,000 to sophisticated parklets that can run two or three times that amount. Actually there is no limited to cost, only the imagination.

The visual impact on the street depends on the design, the more vertical the better. The most critical design control is the street itself. To be a legitimate parklet, the street paving and drainage remains intact. To start removing asphalt and realigning curbs changes the result to a sidewalk improvement not a parklet. The goal is to be cost effective while also dramatically changing the streets look and add to the pedestrian’s experience. Amenities have included planter boxes, pots filled with annual color, tables and chairs, benches, trellises, shade screens—the list is almost endless.

Some are sleek and modern, others funky and very, very temporary looking, some have used salvage bins with a bench crafted into the side, others have used shipping containers (cut-in windows and doors). One was offered as a mini-golf course. Their primary reason is to increase and expand the pedestrian use of the street.

During the last hundred years the automobile has increasingly demand more and more of the right of way. Wider lanes, bike lanes, on street delivery zones, higher and higher parking rates, it has been a constant war between motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians. And the car is winning—for now.

The climate on the West Coast and the South favors the permanent installations of parklets. In snowy regions greater concern is warranted and may require more temporary parklet solutions that get setup each spring and removed in the fall. One distracted snowplow operator can do a lot of damage.

The urban street a tough place. So much going on, so much to offer, so much to lose. The more we can enliven and “activate” the sidewalk and storefronts, the better the downtown.

Stay Tuned . . . . . . .

Saturday, May 16, 2015

City of Light, City of Magic

Terminal Tower - Cleveland
A week ago I was in the bleeding heart of the pejoratively named ‘Rust Belt’ of America, Cleveland. It had been many years since I spent any time in this once great industrial city. In fact the last time I was in Cleveland’s downtown was to pick up my marriage license at city hall (Nixon was president then). Much has sadly gone wrong for this city in the intervening forty plus years, and in most instances these wrongs also happened to Toledo, Youngstown, Detroit and the other manufacturing cities that border the Great Lakes.

Dozens of books and magazine articles have tried to figure out what went wrong. We need someone to blame—but right now the why is irrelevant. During the next decade it is how the future is imagined and then executed that it important. Cleveland has everything going for it: great interstate connections, affordable housing, reasonable climate (I am a climate wimp living in California), wonderful waterfront potential, spectacular cultural institutions and museums, high quality and respected colleges and universities. All it’s missing is a vital and strong downtown core.

Peripheral development is strong (especially on the suburban west side). In fact one of the most exciting new town developments Crocker Park (GO HERE) is expanding with new condominiums and apartments. But as happens, none of this outer ring development helps the traditional regional core, if anything is sucks the heart out of the urban center.

Much is changing in Cleveland’s downtown but much more needs to be done. A dramatic remodel to its four block Public Square is under construction next to the Terminal Tower rail, casino, and retail complex (don’t get me started on the casino that’s located in the old Higbee’s retail building directly across from this remodeled park). But it is the five block-sized open city parking lots smack in the center of the downtown that show the tougher side of the current urban condition. While a new city park would be delightful—twenty thousand new employees would be better.

The Arcade - Cleveland
While at Kent State in the late 1960s I purchased a used camera at a shop that was in the city’s landmark historical complex, The Arcade. This complex on Euclid is a jewel and for its more than 125 years been an important architectural part of the downtown. Built during the time of nineteenth century arcades and enclosed retail complexes it is a smaller reminder of Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and Naples’ Galleria Umberto I. Today, it is still loved by the owners (in excellent condition) but not by many others. When the prime tenant on the ground floor is a fitness center, well, you get my point. It sits there waiting for the revolution.

There are now incredible public facilities downtown that have been built during the last twenty years, the Cavaliers play at the Quicken Loans Arena, the Indians at Progressive Field (The Jake), and the Browns have their new stadium where the old baseball and football field (Cleveland Stadium) stood for more than half a century (and it’s a lot nicer than the new 49’s stadium—just saying). And next door, on the meager waterfront, sits the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (worth visiting).

It is a city that has fought its reputation as an industrial dump celebrated by Randy Newman’s song Burn On.  

But times have changed, you can fish in that once cesspool of a river, Lake Erie is cleaner now than in a hundred years, and there is something finally beginning to happen downtown. But so much more has to be done and these changes must be dramatic and obvious in order to bring people back downtown. More housing, more businesses, more of just about everything. Time will help but this all begs the question about the future of big downtown core cities and whether there is a future for the urban model. That discussion is for later.

Stay Tuned . . . . . . . .