A Walk in the Parklet

After a few years stuck in park, the San Francisco parklet program is moving forward again and accepting more applications for new miniature parks. 

No new parklets have been approved in San Francisco for years. Those parking space-sized public spaces, beloved by Valencia Street coffee sippers and loathed by motorists searching for parking spots, have not seen many new additions since the San Francisco Planning Department last accepted parklet proposals in 2015.

But they announced last week they’re seeking some more.

“San Francisco Planning, in coordination with agency partners from Public Works and SFMTA, has relaunched the San Francisco Parklet Program,” the department said in an Oct. 31 release. “The Program is now accepting proposals for new parklets at any time throughout the year.”

Under the previous system, parklet proposals were only accepted once every two years, and during a tiny six-week window. Now, anyone can apply to build a parklet anytime at Parklets.org.

Planning Department program manager John Francis tells SF Weekly that the parklet approval process has not necessarily been on hold, but was transitioning from a pilot phase to a permanent phase.

“When the Parklet Program was first launched in 2011, it was conceived of as a pilot program to test how the implementation of parklets in San Francisco could work,” he says. “The program is coming out of its pilot phase and being relaunched as a more permanent element of the city’s toolbox for creating more livable streets.

“The biggest change resulting from this transition is that the program is moving from the Request for Proposal [RFP] model to a rolling submission process in which prospective parklet sponsors, or parklet hosts, can submit new proposals at any time during the year for evaluation and approval by the Interagency Team. As such, we expect to see new parklets coming online at a more consistent frequency than in the past.”

San Francisco is credited as being the birthplace of parklets — both the legal and outlaw versions. The whole idea started as a September 2005 effort called Park(ing) Day, when two activists hogged a parking space all day at First and Mission streets, decorating it with astroturf and a bench, and feeding the parking meter for hours and hours.

By the following year, artists across town and in other cities across the nation duplicated the gag. San Francisco turned this momentum into the nation’s first permanent parklet permit process in 2011, and there are now nearly 50 approved parklets in the city.

The Planning Department hopes to see more, and they’ve released a new San Francisco Parklet Manual for prospective parklet builders.

“The contents have been streamlined, clarified, and re-organized to help prospective parklet sponsors more easily find the information they need to prepare their proposals and design their parklets,” Francis says. “It includes updates to some of the parklet design standards and guidelines that reflect best practices for parklet design and function.”

You can get a parklet approved, but it’s a ton of work before you’re even allowed to break ground. Under the new parklet application system, you’ll need to submit a complex site plan with all your design concepts. And of course, you need permission from the property owner.

Your proposal has to detail how many parking spaces the project will occupy, how many parking meters would be removed, and whether your project would affect any bike lanes. Applicants are required to have consent from adjacent property owners, and perform extensive community outreach to get all the neighbors on board. The proposal has to be reviewed by the SFMTA, the Planning Department, and the Department of Public Works. Even if they all approve it, you’ll still have to post public notices, and anyone can object to or appeal your permits.

And this process is not free. It costs about $3,000 in permit and inspection fees before you can even start building your parklet, and those costs are likely to skyrocket once construction begins.

“Our final total was something around $15,000,” says Olivia Ongpin, owner of Luna Rienne Gallery, whose front parklet was established in 2011. (Subsequent redesigns of that parklet have been financed through crowdfunding and private donations.) “They’re not cheap, and we put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into it. But we feel we reap a lot of benefits from it, as do our neighbors.

“There has been some vandalism,” Ongpin admits. “Luckily, no one’s used it as a permanent living space or driven into it.”

Parklets are not entirely risk-free; in 2011, an Oakland parklet was completely uprooted and had its patio and all of its furniture stolen overnight. 

But that’s not the norm, and most sponsors are delighted with their investment in public space. Luna Rienne Gallery has turned the former parking space into a venue for LitCrawl events, kiddie pools during Sunday Streets, and watching parties for Warriors and Giants playoff games.

“We have people from all over the world come and interview us about parklets,” Ongpin says. “The fact that it started in San Francisco is really cool and innovative. It’s great that other cities are looking at us as this model for how to create community.”

NOTE: This article has been updated with clarification on the parklet application process.

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