Here’s another look at what turning places into spaces looks like.
BY TREVOR HUNNICUTT
SAN FRANCISCO â€” A trip to Castro Commons on a recent Sunday afternoon yields most of the usual park vistas: the hand-holding couple on a lazy stroll, the teenager fiddling with his iPod, and, yes, the transient babbling to himself.
But this is not your average park. The 140-foot-long stretch of tables, chairs and planters sits in part of the intersection of two major streets with the tracks of a heavily used streetcar line running right through the middle.
“At the end of the day, it’s the same as being on the sidewalk,” said city planner Andres Power.
Except that the sidewalk is now a park.
Transportation reform advocates and municipal budget deficits here are reviving an old idea in urban planning: the micropark. City officials say small parks like Castro Commons could remake traffic laden streets, which take up a quarter of San Francisco’s land area, into public spaces just as welcoming for pedestrians and bicyclists.
The projects range from small plazas to “parklets,” stylized sidewalk extensions that are shoehorned into what were once parking spaces.
The parks are cheap â€” an advantage for a city known for its commitment to open space but struggling with a gaping budget deficit and limited space. Advocates say they are good for the environment, adaptable, and have the potential to revitalize neighborhoods.
But not everyone is agog for parklets, inspired by similar spaces opened in New York City since 2006. Some projects have raised the hackles of residents and business owners who worry about traffic and parking disruptions or danger to pedestrians.
Joel Panzer opposes a proposal to cordon off an intersection near his Noe Valley home and turn it into a plaza. He says the plaza would close off an arterial street, making it harder for people to drive in the area, and that the proximity of pedestrians to traffic might create a hazard.
“No one’s listening to the people who own property,” said Panzer. “This is a make-work project.”
Others fear that parklets could reduce parking supply in neighborhoods where spots are notoriously difficult to come by.
Herb Cohn, president of the San Francisco Council of District Merchants Associations, said customers fed up with circling the block in search of a spot often take their business elsewhere.
“In a high parking need area taking away three spaces would be a problem,” Cohn said.
Yet not all business owners see the parklets as a problem. Remy Nelson, the owner of the Mojo Bicycle Cafe, said he has consistently seen more customers since a parklet was placed in the parking stalls in front of his cafe and bicycle-repair shop. The addition cost Nelson nothing, though he is responsible for the parklet’s maintenance.
Power, who runs the city’s Pavement to Parks program, said that the city’s parklets have been installed only in places where the parking impact was minimal, and that they will eventually be leased out through a permitting process that is being developed. He added that parklets are no more unpleasant or dangerous than city life overall.
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has announced plans for a total of 12 street parks to be built by the end of the year. Five have been opened so far.
“You’ve been demanding that we begin to democratize our streets,” Newsom said at a park opening in February. “Who said that every single street that’s paved has to be a street that has a priority exclusively for automobiles?”
Cities have long used microparks, like “pocket parks” on the land of abandoned houses, as a way to create green space in the middle of the concrete jungle. In the 1960s, the parks were built in cities including New York as a way to curb urban discord, according to Char Miller, director of the Environmental Analysis program at Pomona College in Claremont.
The urban unrest of the 1960s forced many eastern cities “to realize that amenities were not equally distributed,” he said.
Parks were seen as a way of bringing neighborhoods together and reducing stress otherwise directed at police and other authorities, Miller said. Today, climate change has given municipalities another reason to discourage car use, he said.
Cities are also creating microparks as a way to expand green space even during the recession.
San Francisco’s own parks agency has seen deep cuts in staffing and funding in recent years. The mayor’s latest budget, which attempts to close a half-billion dollar deficit, calls for a 42 percent cut in Recreation and Park Department funding.
The city has used grant money, volunteer labor, nonprofit assistance and donations from businesses to build the projects for as little as several thousand dollars.
“This idea was conceived of during the boom years so it’s certainly not a product of the recession,” said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. “But luckily it is cheap so we’re able to keep it going.”
That’s good news for people like Philip Lesser, who owns a business in the same neighborhood as a parklet.
“Green is good, places for people to sit are good, places for people to recreate are good, and if they’re in proximity to a commercial corridor they are good,” he said.