UCReview: Inside scoop behind Philly's parklet craze

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

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By Nicole Contosta

Since their inception, residents and business owners alike have asked the UC Review about West Philly's parklets. Some have wondered how they came into existence. Others wondered why the Green Line Cafe on 43rd and Baltimore Ave has hosted a parklet for the last three years running, but, its neighbor across the street never has.

So this reporter began asking around. It turns out that not many people knew the guidelines-let alone the origins of Philly's parklet craze. Thus, I contacted Ariel Ben-Amos, Senior Planner/Analyst for the Mayor's Office of Transportation and Utilities (MOTU) and Nate Hommel, Capital Projects Manager, Planning and Economic Development for the University City District (UCD). And here’s what I discovered:

According to Ben-Amos, "the UCD approached our office in 2010 to build a pilot parklet in front of the Green Line Cafe. They had received a grant from the William Penn Foundation, the support of the Green Line Cafe owners," Ben-Amos explained, adding, " and the support of Councilwoman Blackwell."

But how did the UCD devise the concept of parklets?

"The idea first came from Prema Gupta," Hommel said. Gupta works as the UCD's Director of Planning and Economic Development. "She was the visionary for all of the parklets. She spent some time in San Francisco and loved them," Hommel continued, adding San Fran's Rebar Art and Design Studio created parklets. "From there, we took the idea to Ariel and others at MOTU."

Needless to say, MOTU accepted the proposal with open arms.

"The UCD's pilot proved so successful that MOTU found extra grant money to seed parklets across the city," Ben-Amos said, explaining that MOTU awarded an individual $5,000 in grants community organizations citywide. They included: the Chinatown CDC, SOSNA, the New Kensington Development Corporation, the Logan Community Development Corporation as well as one in Manayunk.

"The grant funding offered to community organizations from the city was a one time deal," Ben-Amos said. In addition, Ben-Amos went on to clarify that the businesses did not receive parklets. Community groups received grants to support the parklets development and the community groups were free to partner with businesses of their choosing.

The parklets that Ben-Amos is referring to do not include those found in University City.

While the UCD has to adhere to the same guidelines when applying for a parklet's temporary lane closures from MOTU, there are some differences.

Currently, the UCD funds five parklets in University City. The funding came from grants that the organization received elsewhere. The grants did not come from MOTU, Hommel clarified. West Philly parklets include: Honest Tom's Tacos at 261 S. 44th Street, the Green Line Cafe at 4239 Baltimore Ave, Fu-Wa Market at 810 S. 47th Street, Manakeesh Cafe at 4420 Walnut Street and Little Baby's Ice Cream at 4903 Catherine Street. The sixth at the Ramen Bar 4040 Locust Street was formed as a partnership between the UCD and the building's owner, Campus Apartments, Hommel explained. The UCD, Hommel explained, remains responsible for all of the parklets' cleaning, upkeep and storage during the off-season months.

The parklets are moveable and can change from year to year, Hommel explained. When asked why some, like the parklet found in front of Tom's Tacos and the parklet in front of the Green Line, have been there for more than one year, Hommel cites their popularity. "The Green Line is the most popular parklet," Hommel emphasized. "It creates a wonderful niche not being filled by the park," Hommel said in relation to neighboring Clark Park.

For that reason, the UCD plans to host another Green Line parklet for the 2014 season.

Of course, the UCD's parklets, like all parklets citywide, "are for everyone. It is a public site," Hommel explained. "And anyone can sit there, regardless of whether they purchase anything from the business or not."

So how does applying for a parklet work?

In University City, business owners contact the UCD.

Elsewhere in the city, business owners apply directly through MOTU. Since MOTU no longer funds parklets, the business owner is responsible for its construction costs and upkeep, Ben-Amos said. Business owners can cut cost by having an architect friend volunteer to design the parklet. The business owner can also find volunteers to help assemble/dissemble it, Ben-Amos noted.

Furthermore, businesses and community groups are eligible to apply for parklets. And, detailed information regarding parklets is actually found on the Streets Department's website here http://www.philadelphiastreets.com/complete-streets.aspx. The city has yet to issue a limit on how many parklets it will allow. However, "the city will not allow two parklets on the same block," Ben-Amos explained. "While popular, there is only a limited amount of people who want to see them."

Other factors come into play.

For safety reasons, the parklet cannot be located on a road where traffic goes more than thirty-five miles per hour, Hommel said. The UCD also examines the street's surrounding environment. "Shade is one of the things we look for," Hommel explained.

When it comes to final approval, the proposed parklet also has to have the support of the business owner, the support of the neighborhood's councilperson as well as the approval of 51% of the block's property owners.

Approval from the block's property owners can work in one of two ways, Hommel said, explaining that it comes from either individual homeowners or from one property owner who owns 51% of the street's homes.

The above rules did not come into play with the Green Line, "because that was the pilot," Hommel noted.

"Parklets are increasingly becoming a resource," said Hommel, in reference to the fact that the hosting businesses earn a 20% increase in sales. In fact, Hommel said that he just met with people from the Jersey Downtown Association. "They want parklets there as well."

West Philly business owners interested in hosting a parklet should contact Hommel at the UCD, he emphasized, adding that he can be reached at 215-243-0555, x 245 or [email protected].