by Tyler Mangrum
– The Capitol Hill Times –
Off the corner of East Olive Way and East Howell Street, situated directly in front of Montana, sits an oddity for both Capitol Hill and Seattle. Where there was once a single parking space, there is now a wooden, open-air construct, built upon a slight ramp that’s lined with seating and small plants. At first glance, the space looks like a new porch for Montana, but upon closer inspection, it’s clear that this is something different.
The small wooden space is, in fact, Seattle’s first “parklet,” a small public area that, as the name suggests, acts as mini-park extending from the sidewalk. It’s an idea pioneered by San Francisco in 2009, which has since spread across the country in places like New York, Pittsburgh and Portland, as these cities aim to infuse liveliness into their streets.
“The goal of the parklet program is to provide a little bit of additional public open space,” said Jennifer Wieland, the Seattle Department of Transit official tasked with spearheading Seattle’s program. “It’s a business-funded-and-provided space for people to gather, have a cup of coffee, or meet friends. Providing that little bit of additional space in neighborhoods is really important. There are a lot of neighborhoods, and Capitol Hill is a great example, where you have a great mix of businesses, but you also have narrow sidewalks. There isn’t room for tables and chairs, and there isn’t room to do a lot in the public realm.”
Since the start of the parklet initiative, San Francisco has installed over 40 parklets, and will have more than 80 by the end of this year, with more applications rolling in each year. So far, only one has been removed. According to the Wieland, word of the parklets’ success in San Francisco and other cities spurred local Seattle business owners to petition the city in the hope of trying them out here.
“It was back in late 2011 and early 2012 that we started hearing from businesses that there was interest in trying a program like this in Seattle,” Wieland said.
Montana’s parklet is the first of three to be constructed under SDOT’s new pilot program, with the second and third parklets to be constructed in Belltown and the International District later this fall. If the spaces prove popular with neighborhood residents, a permanent program may then be put in place, with more parklets to follow.
While some have expressed concern over the impact that these spaces will have on the ever-dwindling supply of parking spots across the city, Wieland has said that the placement of these spaces has been carefully thought out by SDOT to ensure that the impact on available parking will be minimal.
“We did a public notice, and while we did hear a few concerns about parking, we have really good parking data,” Wieland said. “So, when we look at the availability and supply of on-street parking in the surrounding area, we don’t see the removal and conversion of one parking space as having significant impact. It is something that we absolutely – as we conduct our evaluation of the pilot and think about moving into a permanent program – will be watching closely. Obviously we don’t want to end up in a situation where we’re making it more difficult to park in a neighborhood, but we do think that providing additional public open spaces is a pretty significant benefit, and it’s worth converting a few spaces here and there.”
Rachel Marshall, co-owner of Montana, has also gone on record to say that approximately 90 percent of her customers are pedestrians, and the loss of one parking spot and addition of a new bike rack next to the parklet will only make the location more attractive for her clientele. In fact, it was the very reason that she petitioned to have the parklet constructed.
Despite some reservations, Wieland believes that residents will begin to warm-up to the idea of parklets once they see the benefits that the extra space will have for neighborhoods and business owners, introducing a new element to their street life.
“Having that additional public space is really great in creating a pedestrian environment that really activates the street,” Wieland said. “That’s what we’re striving for in the program – creating a vibrant public realm, supporting biking, walking and transit, and giving businesses an opportunity to do something that’s different and creative. It’s a great design opportunity, and a great way for businesses to contribute something to their neighborhood.”