Bethlehem paving a new paradise out of a parking spot

Monday, January 30, 2017

Originally published in The Morning Star


Bethlehem paving a new paradise out of a parking spot

As winter melts to spring in the coming months, Bethlehem's slate sidewalks will be flush with diners sampling linguine and sipping lager in the postcard-perfect downtown.

That al fresco dining experience may not be just for Main Street anymore as Bethlehem looks to pave a new paradise from parking spots.

Following the lead of Philadelphia, Seattle and other cities, Bethlehem is launching a pilot program to convert some parking spaces into parklets — mini parks to accommodate tables, chairs and potted plants where sidewalks are too skinny for such amenities.

"Outdoor dining creates a nice ambiance on Main Street when people are sitting out and eating, but the sidewalks are very wide there," Mayor Robert Donchez said. "We want to gauge interest and see if we can bring that liveliness" to other places in the city's business districts with parklets.
 
The carved-out crannies have cropped up in metropolises such as Los Angeles and New York as well as tiny boroughs such as Media, Delaware County. If successful, Bethlehem would become the only Lehigh Valley city with parklets, though Easton paved the way for them a year ago. Businesses in Bethlehem have until Feb. 15 to submit proposals for the nooks, which would come with a fee and replace some metered spots.

The perks outweigh the lost parking spots, according to a 2015 study of parklets in the University City section of Philadelphia that showed most parklet seats occupied during peak hours. A taco shop parklet, for example, gave up two spots in exchange for a 240-square-foot parklet that drew 150 people daily.

Merchants reported a 20 percent increase in business in the two weeks after they opened a parklet, according to the study, which was conducted by University City District, a group that promotes revitalization in the neighborhood.

"Individual businesses see it as something that makes them more attractive. They've seen increased business after it was installed," said Charlotte Castle, who oversees Philadelphia's 13 parklets as the city's transportation systems program planner.

She said the cost of the parklet is a flat $125 fee for a three-year permit, making it affordable.

Cost can be an issue, as Easton found after launching its program at the urging of a restaurant owner. With the city's charging $11-a-day per spot to cover the lost parking revenue, parklets have not sprouted. Setting one up would require at least two parking spots, which would cost a restaurant owner about $2,000 for three months.

Bethlehem's proposal carries a $125 application fee, and if meter removal is required, an additional $650 per metered spot would go to the Parking Authority. The city expects to issue four permits for a pilot program that would run from April 15 through Nov. 1. Permit renewals would cost $650 annually for each parking spot if the city decides to continue the program. Planning Director Darlene Heller said winning applicants would have to circulate petitions among their neighbors to make sure a majority approves of the parklet.

Some proposals may meet with resistance from business owners who don't want to give up precious parking spots in a downtown where merchants and restaurateurs are battling suburban competitors that have free and spacious parking lots.
 
Tina Kowalski, who owns the Funhouse bar on East Fourth Street in Bethlehem, said she is wary about putting parklets on the South Side, especially before a planned parking deck is built.

"I've been here for 35 years and parking has always been a problem," she said.

Heller said the petition was included because the city doesn't want to stir up controversy. It is just looking to establish more seating for cash-carrying, al fresco-seeking tourists and residents.

Vibrant scene

Parklets are the latest experiment in a movement called tactical urbanism that promotes cheap, nimble strategies to empower communities to change their landscapes.

When used for dining, parklets are sometimes called streateries and include a built-in barricade separating them from the street. But they also may be more park-like, featuring benches, sculptures, bike racks or war memorials. They started about a dozen years ago in San Franicisco when owners of a design studio parked a bench and potted plant in a parking spot, feeding the meter all day, as a way to highlight public space.

Parklets to cost Easton restaurants $11 per space
Like a living billboard, parklets encourage people to linger, creating pedestrian activity and slowing traffic in the narrowed street. In University City, people used them mostly to sit and talk, the study found, while some sat to eat, read or write. Patrons lingered anywhere from a few minutes to three quarters of an hour, creating a vibrant scene that people wanted to be part of.

"People don't like to walk by boring. They'll turn around and walk back home," said Karen Beck Pooley, director of the Environmental Policy Design program at Lehigh University. "You want to keep it interesting so that they'll walk to the next block even after they are done with their errands."

While redeveloping historic districts or growing festivals such as Musikfest take time and money, setting up a few tables and chairs can have a big impact with little investment.

Outdoor dining has been part of Bethlehem's culture since 2002, when the city legalized what some restaurants had been doing to mimic hip neighborhoods such as Philadelphia's Manayunk.

In 2009, Bethlehem legalized mobile food carts after a rogue hot-dog vendor began operating out of a parking spot. The following year, Bethlehem updated its sidewalk ordinance, addressing everything from table design to sandwich boards.
 
The number of permits issued for sidewalk tables and chairs increased from eight in 2011 to 18 in 2016. As for street vendors, the city issued permits last year for one hot dog cart, two textbook buy-back trucks, one food truck and one ice cream truck.

Merchants and vendors set up outdoor huts around Main Street during the Christmas season, and new mini-festivals celebrating various seasons and cultures debut every year.

Outdoor amusements have reached such critical mass that businesses are investing in the outdoor dining experience. McCarthy's Red Stag Pub, a restaurant that features more than 160 whiskeys, built a brick patio adjacent to its Walnut Street entrance.

Jill Oman, executive chef and general manager, said the patio almost doubles the restaurant's size. It also draws the attention of people who might not have noticed the pub because of its entrance on Walnut Street, around the corner from Main Street.

For other restaurants off the beaten path, parklets may be a means to that end — a place for people to park their derrieres instead of their cars.
 

ABOUT PARKLETS

What is a parklet? A mini-park in a street or on a sidewalk with tables and chairs, benches, art or plants.

What is the purpose? To create activity on a street by establishing more outdoor dining or spots where people may sit and linger.

Where is it used? Many cities have parklets, including New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Seattle.

Are parklets in the Lehigh Valley? Easton permits parklets but doesn't have any currently. Bethlehem could become the first city to establish them in earnest.

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