Transforming parking spots to parklets: Philadelphia joins an urban trend

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Transforming parking spots to parklets: Philadelphia joins an urban trend

By Inga Saffron

Inquirer Architecture Critic

How small can you make a park and still have it serve as a civilized refuge from the teeming city? Philadelphia is about to find out.

Today, the University City District debuts Philadelphia's first "parklet," on 43d Street a few inches north of Baltimore Avenue. The shrunken park will be the size of two parking spaces. In fact, the parklet is two city parking spaces, a detail sure to cause the gnashing of some motorists' teeth.

A space measuring 40 feet by 6 feet may not sound like much of a park. But in transferring a precious patch of public street from the car to the pedestrian, Philadelphia is embracing the latest urban trend. The pavement-to-parks movement began two summers ago in New York, when Mayor Bloomberg annexed an entire lane of Broadway for an archipelago of public plazas, and then jumped to San Francisco, where parklets were seen as a cheap way to create places to sun and socialize.

Philadelphia has long been eager to get in on the act, but wasn't quite sure where to put a pilot parklet, said Rina Cutler, deputy mayor for transportation. The University City District solved the problem by volunteering this summer to serve as a guinea pig.

"We're hoping this parklet becomes an attraction and people will want to hang out there," said Andrew Stober, who works for Cutler in the Mayor's Office of Transportation and Utilities. The parklet is across from a busy trolley stop.

Parklets are the newest tool in a kit of low-cost amenities that cities have been using to make urban living more pleasant and to encourage people to linger on the sidewalks. Like bike lanes and farmers' markets, they're cheap and easy to install. Philadelphia's parklet cost $10,000 and was financed entirely by the William Penn Foundation.

The University City District, a nonprofit business-improvement association, surveyed neighbors to see if anyone objected to sacrificing the two spaces in front of the Green Line Cafe. None did, said the district's planner, Prema Gupta. Also, because there are no meters on 43d, the city won't lose any revenue.

Rather than resort to the time-honored Philadelphia method of marking off parking spaces with kitchen chairs and sawhorses, the University City District hired Digsau Architects and metal fabricator Bill Curran to design a deck with a railing. The parklet will be landscaped with planters and outfitted with 10 tables and 20 Parisian-style chairs - the same kind as those used across the street in the more generously sized Clark Park. The railing provides an 18-inch buffer from traffic.

Gupta acknowledged that the idea of creating a parklet across from a real park might sound like overkill, but she argued that there was a shortage of outdoor seating in University City. Several of Manhattan's Broadway plazas also are adjacent to parks. "It's a place to sit and enjoy the sun, not a place to have a catch with your kid," she explained.

Although the Green Line will maintain the parklet and store the furniture overnight, the space is open to everyone.

The parklet, which can be quickly disassembled and stored, will remain on the street into October, Cutler said. If the pilot project proves successful, it will be reinstalled in April, and Philadelphia will look for other parklet locations. The city also is asking neighborhoods to suggest intersections for permanent street plazas, like those on Broadway.

Meanwhile, the University City District is making plans to install two more parklets later this month.