by Mike Dunphy
When the first planks for a new parklet were laid down outside Down Home Kitchen on Langdon Street, Montpelier began to buzz over the wisdom of such a venture. While critics chafed at the loss of parking spaces, alleged minimal notification, and traffic issues, others cheered the move as something new and vibrant, based on the philosophy that it’s people that make a downtown vibrant, not parking. Or as urban activist Jane Jacobs once noted, “Not TV or illegal drugs but the automobile has been the chief destroyer of American communities.”
It’s a philosophy shared by Down Home Kitchen owner, Mary Alice Proffitt, who told the City Council during a public hearing on May 9, “Sometimes you have to sacrifice a few parking spots to do something creative and exciting that draws people into your downtown to spend money, and not just to go to a chain restaurant in Williston or a bar in Waterbury.”
For others, such as Yvonne Baab, the owner of Global Gifts, removing the three parking spots on an already tight street is not the right approach. “The idea of increasing a business’s area by taking up public space that is needed, in this case for parking, I am just opposed to that,” she told the Council, also noting the short notice. “I really think it is unfair that we are not given notice to have a say on how this going to impact us.”
Wherever your sympathies lie, the goal of all is the same: to bring more life—and therefore business dollars—to downtown. The question is what can do that better? More parking spaces or parklets?
Impact studies of parklets in Philadelphia and San Francisco, where parklets first appeared, lean in their favor. A 2011 Parklet Impact Study by San Francisco Great Streets Project studied the influence of parklets at three locations—Valencia Street in the Mission district, Stockton Street in North Beach, and Polk Street in Polk Gulch—on pedestrian traffic, behavior, and perception before and after each was installed.
Among the key findings was that average foot traffic on Stockton Street increased 44 percent after the parklet was installed (but remained more or less the same on the other two streets). However, the number of people stopping to engage in “stationary activities” significantly increased at all three locations. While only one of the seven businesses that replied to the survey observed that customer levels had increased after the parklet was installed, none saw a decrease.
A 2013 study in Philadelphia by University City District, a nonprofit neighborhood development organization, witnessed even greater benefits, noting “the sales impact [on nearby businesses] of the parklet was substantial: following the introduction of the parklets, sales were up by 20 percent.”
But of course, Montpelier isn’t San Francisco or Philadelphia, where there are a plethora of parking alternatives and significant public transport systems. Plus, the median age in Montpelier skews much higher, making mobility difficulties an issue for many. Families with small children also suffer additional stress from trying to find parking near the destination. Perhaps most importantly, as City Manager Bill Fraser notes, “Our businesses can’t survive on just Montpelier residents,” so parking accommodations for those driving into Montpelier is indeed important.
Thankfully, with the legislature out of town and schools closing for the summer, the parking crunch is significantly reduced in the summer, creating an ideal opportunity to experiment with the parklet, especially after the positive reaction to the Positive Pie parklet on State Street. The city passed the ordinance March 18, allowing for six parking spaces total. Down Home Kitchen was application number one, and it was approved in mid-May by a 4-2 vote, with councilors Rosie Krueger and Glen Coburn Hutcheson objecting.
The parklets are supported by Montpelier Alive, which first floated the idea of parklets several years ago. “I know it can be challenging to find parking downtown,” executive director Dan Groberg reflects, “but our hope is that by turning over a limited number of spaces, we can really enhance the vibrancy of downtown and bring a great atmosphere out onto the streets.”
Based on his observation, it seems to be working. “I was at the Down Home parklet over the weekend, and there were families enjoying free creemees and parents having drinks out in the parklet, and it was a really great atmosphere,” Groberg said.
But is it creating spillover customers for surrounding businesses? Because the Down Home parklet has only been open a short time, it’s probably too early to say, but Kipp Roberts, co-owner of Onion River Outdoors next door did note, “We did see a lot of traffic down that way over the holiday weekend, and I know there were some folks in here with Down Home creemees, but it’s hard to say whether or not these folks would have come our way anyways.”
Indeed, anecdotal evidence is currently the only measurement in place to determine the success of the parklets, with no formal impact studies planned after the parklet season ends in October. The same approach was used to assess the Positive Pie parklet, too, as Fraser explains. “It was measured strictly in the eyes of the beholder. The council felt that in their view, based on feedback that they’d received and their observations, that they hadn’t been disruptive to downtown in any way, that it had created the type of vitality that they had wanted.”
For Groberg, the spillover business shouldn’t be the only measurement of the parklets’ success. “I think we need to measure it in a variety of ways, and one of those ways is the sales of adjoining businesses, but I think it is also important to look at the contribution to the overall vibrancy of downtown and energy on the street.”
Whichever side people fall on the debate, nearly all those involved do agree some revision of the process and the ordinance is in order. “From my perspective,” Fraser says, “process wise, we could do a lot of things differently and improve, definitely more notice, more publicity about the process, . . . some sort of permit process perhaps. The biggest criticism we heard about was no notice.” Roberts agrees, saying, “I do wish city council would review their policies regarding the number of parklets per business, their duration, and the minimum requirements prior to the approval and construction process.”
“When the council adopted the ordinance,” city council member Rosie Krueger adds, “there was also some discussion about whether to limit more specifically where parklets could go, how many in a row, and so forth, however, the general feeling at the time was that future councils could make those judgments on a case-by-case basis when the applications came in. However, when this application came before the council, it seemed like some council members felt they couldn’t really oppose it, because there weren’t any standards in the ordinance against which the council could consider the application. This indicates that the ordinance language needs some more work before future applications occur.”
Another aspect that could be changed going forward is assessing the cost of the parking spaces, which is currently based on the cost of taking up the space for a full day—$810 per space for the 27 weeks, from May 1 to November 8. Multiply that by three—the number of spaces of the Down Home parklet—and it nonetheless doesn’t seem like peanuts, especially considering the thousands of dollars Proffitt invested in the construction of the Down Home parklet itself, plus wages for the staff to work and maintain it.
That investment by a private business should be noted, says Sarah DeFelice of Bailey Road on Main Street. “Businesses that are investing in making the street look as good as parklets make them look, they need to be allowed to try that. It’s not like she’s expanding at will. She’s investing.” However, DeFelice concedes, “If businesses surrounding that business find their sales are down 20 percent, 30 percent, and it’s really hurting, that has to be part of the conversation.”
The question over the public versus the private parklet also remains contentious. As City Councilor Rosie Krueger pointed out, “I voted against the parklet ordinance when the council passed it this winter because I am uncomfortable with the idea of taking a public asset and allowing a private business to restrict access to it on a semi-permanent basis. I have no problem with public parklets . . . I would be happy to support that.” Baab shares that opinion. “If it were open to the public all day long and took one parking space on the street, I could see that being beneficial, but not the way it is now.”
One argument against public parklets might be the current state of Montpelier’s “Pocket Park,” where the difficulties of upkeep—and generating the funds to support it regularly—are becoming apparent in its progressive shabbiness. “My personal preference would be that they are all public parklets,” Fraser notes, “but I say that with a caveat . . . that they be maintained and done right. However, the economics for a lot of these projects are very tight, so often times you are trying to blend some public and private resources to do some of these projects.”
For Groberg, he hopes the experience of shopping downtown, parklets included, outweighs these challenges to parking. “Part of shopping downtown is that you might not be able to find a spot directly in front of the store you want to go to, but we offer such unique boutiques and great dining that we encourage people to come downtown anyway and park on one of the residential streets or the public lots. It is a different experience than shopping at a big box store, where you might be able to park right in front.”
That may be true, but as Fraser points out. “Parking is the first and last impression somebody has of your community. Is it easy to use? Is it friendly? Can you find a space? Is the pay system easy? Was the experience a good experience for you? It can make a difference.”
For now, the experiment goes forward, with decisions about increasing or reducing spaces for parklets put off until after the season. As Fraser notes, “Let’s see how these six goes.”