Oakland parking spaces will become spots of leisure on (PARK)ing Day

This may look like a metered parking space, but on Friday Farley's East coffee shop will transform this spot into a park.

Photo by: Brittany Schell

More than a dozen business and community groups will haul furniture and plants into parking spaces this weekend, establishing miniature curbside parks on the road in front of Oakland shops. In conjunction with Friday’s International PARK(ing) Day, participating groups are building “parklets” to add green public spaces to urban landscapes.

The elements of a parklet—a parking spot transformed into a tiny public relaxation area—can vary, from a patch of grass-like turf and plants to an outdoor patio with seating. In general, a parklet is “the reclaiming of otherwise useless space and making it livable,” said Sal Bednarz, the owner of Actual Cafe in North Oakland and a parklet pioneer in the city. The main requirement is that these spaces are open to the public.

Some parklets cover more than one parking space, while others are built in non-metered spots or unused, curbside areas of the road, said Bednarz. The Actual Cafe parklet, featuring a wooden patio with tables, chairs and planters, will be set up in a defunct bus lane in front of the shop on Alcatraz Avenue. Bednarz hopes to make this setup a permanent feature of Actual Cafe, if the city grants him a permit.

Friday will be Oakland’s second PARK(ing) Day sponsored by Walk Oakland Bike Oakland (WOBO), the pedestrian and cyclist advocacy group. The event began in 2005 in San Francisco, when Rebar Art and Design Studio converted a downtown parking space into a temporary public park for two hours, rolling out sod and hauling in a tree and a bench, all while feeding the meter to keep it legal.

Photos of the Rebar parklet spread across the Internet, sparking requests for parklets in other cities. PARK(ing) Day has since become an international event. Last year, there were 850 parklets across the world in 30 different countries. As can be seen through the official PARK(ing) Day website, there are parklets springing up this Friday all across the United States, as well as on every continent from South America to Australia—there is even one parklet scheduled for Cape Town, South Africa.

At least 13 parklets are scheduled to be set up over the weekend in Oakland, said Ruth Miller, a volunteer policy fellow at WOBO. These 13 are registered with the International PARK(ing) Day website, but other parklets may be created spontaneously.

“It is hard to know how many there will be,” said Miller. “This is such a grassroots thing.”

The Actual Cafe parklet will be set up from Friday to Sunday, with a live deejay outside on Friday night. There will also be a block party celebrating PARK(ing) Day on Saturday on 64th Street across from the shop. Actual Cafe and other neighborhood businesses will offer a 10 percent discount all weekend to holders of the WOBO passport, which visitors can obtain at participating parklets and get stamped at every site.

Miller said WOBO has been coordinating PARK(ing) Day with city departments to make them aware of the activities and to prevent problems they ran into last year.

Chris Hillyard, the co-owner of Farley’s East coffee shop on Grand Avenue in downtown Oakland, was forced by the police last year to move his benches out of the street and roll up the turf delineating his parklet, because police had not been informed about PARK(ing) Day. But all the outreach done by WOBO this year should prevent similar problems, said Hillyard. “And of course we will be feeding the meter.”

One of the big concerns over permanent parklets is the loss of revenue from metered parking spaces and the inconvenience to drivers of losing a parking space, especially in downtown Oakland, where parking can be more difficult.

But most people who object to the idea of parklets seem to get over their resistance once they see it in action and realize it is only one or two parking spaces, said Sara Erickson, a property manager for Walgreen’s and Trader Joe’s on Lakeshore Avenue, and a member of the Lakeshore Business Improvement District. The goal of PARK(ing) Day this weekend is to showcase parklets for the public.

For this year’s PARK(ing) Day, Farley’s Oakland location will once again lay down the artificial turf and drag benches into the parking space to create an urban park in front of the coffee shop. “We are trying to make it as much of a real park as we can,” said Hillyard, who has also planned activities like yoga and martial arts demonstrations during the day on Friday.

There will be local PARK(ing) day activities continuing on Saturday as well, including three parklets on Lakeshore Avenue and one on Grand Avenue. Erickson said she is working to establish a permanent setup in the space Arizmendi Bakery’s parklet will occupy this weekend, right in front of the bakery on Lakeshore Avenue.

Erickson and others in the neighborhood will set up three other temporary parklets Saturday—Erickson said she will bring plants from her own house to add greenery to the tables, chairs and rug that will make up the parklet in front of Noah’s Bagels on Lakeshore.

The permanent parklet idea is modeled on a San Francisco initiative called Pavement to Parks. In 2009, the city set up a permit process to allow groups to build and maintain permanent parklets, said Erickson, on the heels of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision to transform portions of Broadway in Manhattan into pedestrian-only space. San Francisco’s Valencia Street now has seven or eight parklets, she said.

“We need one here,” said Erickson. “There is always a crowd outside of Arizmendi, spilling onto the sidewalk, people sitting in the gutter.” For her and other parklet proponents, PARK(ing) Day is a way to showcase community support and gain publicity for the idea of permanent parklets. The city of Oakland currently has no permitting process for these improvised spots, but one is in the works.

Eric Angstadt, deputy director for the Community and Economic Development Agency (CEDA), said the next step is a “pilot” parklet program. The city will send out a request for proposals at the end of September, giving businesses and groups a chance to lay out their plans. The agency will choose eight parklets to be built by spring, said Angstadt.

The owners of these pilot parklets will probably be given a year to prove that their spaces can be maintained and will not cause problems, said Angstadt.

“It’s about proving that these things will be a plus rather than a minus,” he said.

San Francisco and Emeryville both have existing permit processes for parklets. Hillyard, who also runs Farley’s coffee shops in San Francisco and Emeryville, has permanent parklets at both of these locations. He said the San Francisco parklet started about a month ago and that he just received a permit from Emeryville to build one in front of Farley’s on 65th Street, which will be finished in the next few months. He is planning on submitting a proposal to the Oakland parklet pilot program.

“I think it is great to have as many parks as a city can hold, especially in the more urban centers,” said Hillyard. “Having a little oasis within that space, there is something very comforting about that.”

As Oakland cafe owners, both Hillyard and Bednarz are confident that permanent parklets in Oakland will be established someday.

Bednarz just finished building the Actual Cafe parklet for this week’s PARK(ing) Day, with help from neighborhood volunteers. He is still committed to making this a permanent parklet eventually, even though his first construction was stolen last May. Bednarz said the theft was partially his own fault because he left the disassembled pieces of the parklet on the sidewalk while waiting to put them into storage.

“I can’t blame someone for scavenging something off the side of the road,” he said. “I would do the same thing. There was no sign on it.”

Despite that setback, Bednarz is optimistic about parklets, which he said can be mutually beneficial for a neighborhood and a business. The miniature park settings calm traffic on busy streets, provide extra seats for customers and make the location more beautiful.

“Anything that benefits my neighborhood benefits me,” said Bednarz. “I don’t ever resent putting in effort to make my community a better place.”

You can see Oakland North’s photos from last year’s PARK(ing) Day in Oakland by clicking here.

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