What are parklets, and why might Hamilton try them on Main Street?

Hamilton is considering using temporary “parklets” like this one in San Francisco along Main Street, which it hopes will become a vibrant entertainment district. SOURCE: SAN FRANCISCO PLANNING DEPARTMENT
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Hamilton is considering using temporary “parklets” like this one in San Francisco along Main Street, which it hopes will become a vibrant entertainment district. SOURCE: SAN FRANCISCO PLANNING DEPARTMENT

Idea used in San Francisco could help entertainment areas here.

City officials in Hamilton earlier this year floated the idea of bumping out sidewalks along Main Street to allow outdoor dining.

Now, they are considering a slightly different idea for the area they hope will become an entertainment district: Temporary platforms that occupy parking spaces along the streets that widen the sidewalks, and then can disappear.

Council Member Timothy Naab was in Park City, Utah, recently for a work conference and noticed that in front of a restaurant or shop, where there would be a normal parallel-parking space along a street, “there is a temporary wooden structure that goes out and actually fills that parking space,” he said.

“It goes from the top of the curb, where the sidewalk would be, out to the street, and then has maybe a small fenced area around it that would be similar to a railing or a little picket fence type thing, and the restaurant puts four or five tables out there in that little wooden space,” Naab said.

People still walk the sidewalks, but the space into the street creates either a dining area or a tiny park where people can gather. In Park City, after special events, “after that event is over, they take that parklet in, and they store it in parks, and utility garages and things,” Naab said.

He was there during a weekend when there was a festival, “and all of these little wonderful spaces in front of these shops, they had these little decorative lights that went out, or patio lights that went out on the surrounding railings, or the surrounding foliage, stuff like that,” Naab said.

“I’ll bet you in the street that I was on, there were 30 or 40 of these little parklets,” Naab said. “It was really cool.”

Park City is built on hills, so each parklet is made specifically for each parking space. That way, it perfectly matches the slope and the curvature of the street, so a given parklet may be six inches high on one end, but a foot tall on the other.

Each parklet is numbered to correspond with the specific space it occupies.

“It allowed for traffic, because they were only taking up the parking spots in front of the businesses,” Naab said.

Relatively new concept

San Francisco is credited with creating the parklet concept. The city now has 60 parklets, with seven more on the way by mid-2017, said John Francis, a planner and urban designer there.

“The response to parklets by San Franciscans has been overwhelmingly positive,” Francis said. “Parklet sponsors have consistently shared with their neighbors beautiful and creatively designed public spaces that help make San Francisco the socially and economically vibrant city that it is.”

Permits for parklets in San Francisco last a full year and can be renewed fairly easily. It’s more difficult to get one at the start, which can include public hearings when a location is controversial, such as some early on that were located near bars and were too noisy for the neighbors at night.

In urban areas like San Francisco and Hamilton, removing parking can be controversial, city officials noted.

Another thing about San Francisco’s program: The parklets are public spaces, so cafes and restaurants are not allowed to tell people, “You didn’t buy a coffee from my shop, so you can’t sit there.” Instead, they are public gathering spaces, or tiny parks that serve as community hubs where friends can meet.

Main Street group lacks consensus

Nan Rawlins, president of Hamilton’s Main Street Area Association, said she personally likes the idea of parklets, which have been discussed at her organization’s meetings.

Among the organization’s membership, “I don’t think there’s a consensus,” Rawlins said. “Some people think it’s a great idea, and that it would slow traffic down, it would make it a more inviting area for restaurants and merchandising on the sidewalks.”

“Other people think it would take away valuable parking in front of their building, and so that’s a concern,” she added. “I like the idea, because I think it would make the street area much more inviting. We area also discussing the option of instead of making the parking parallel, making it head-in like they have in Oxford, and that would allow more parking for the space than parallel parking.”

“For a lot of store owners and business owners, the speed of traffic going down Main Street is a concern, so if it would slow down traffic, it was pretty welcome,” Rawlins said.

The city and non-profit redevelopment CORE Fund have been adding more off-street parking lately, but one thing that would be helpful, she said, are signs that would alert motorists to that parking.

“We went up and down (Main Street), talked to all the businesses again, everyone actually wants one,” City Manager Joshua Smith recently told City Council. “I think we’re going to do four of them, but basically, we’re going to hit the ones that have restaurants.”

“So you’re only removing four parking spaces in a three-block area, but we’re adding over 65 new parking spaces with all the off-street parking,” Smith said. “And we would not do it without the owner’s permission. But if they want one, we’re going to do four of them. That way, you can put tables outside, right on that little parklet, you can go eat outside. You can put trees. It’s pretty cool.

“I think it’s going to be something that sets us apart in Butler County, and it’s going to provide us some cool space,” Smith said.

In San Francisco, safety guidelines don’t allow parklets on streets where traffic moves too fast, and they can’t be too close to intersections. Posts and wheel stops are added to prevent vehicles from hitting the parklets. Some parklets have been hit by vehicles, but never with anybody in one at the time, a San Francisco official said. In that city, adjacent property owners own the parklets, and they pay to build and maintain them, as well as maintain the insurance liability for them.

Along Main Street, “We certainly can do things that are different and unique in Butler County that no one else is doing,” Smith said. “No offense to Liberty Center — it’s nice, but it’s not this.”

Officials hope that with the proposed Spooky Nook sports complex nearby, Main Street can become an entertainment and dining destination.

“I keep hearing about what the people on Main Street call ‘the High Street transformation’ (and they say), ‘We want a piece of that. We want to feel more like that….’ In my opinion, they can have more than that because … they have an opportunity to be really like a true entertainment area, a fun area,” Smith said. “I think it’s going to be a lot of fun in the next couple of years as this gets built out and developed.”

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