SMALL PARKLETS SPAWN BIG DEBATE IN DOWNTOWN GREENSBORO
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The drive to enhance part of the 300 block of South Elm Street in Downtown Greensboro with outdoor seating areas known as parklets had a full head of steam as the New Year dawned.
Driven by Downtown Greensboro Inc.’s project manager, Steven Harrison, the parklets initiative involved multiple levels of Greensboro’s city staff, interested business owners, faculty and students from UNC- Greensboro, in addition to the DGI board itself, which received regular updates on the idea’s progress.
Former DGI CEO Jason Cannon raised the idea of parklets last summer. DGI was then in the middle of a transition, looking for ways to make more of an impact downtown. Cannon said that the concept of parklets would be something DGI focused on moving forward.
“One of the things that I’ve noticed a lot walking up and down downtown is that all the parking lots are full, and people are in stores, but no one is walking around outside,” said Cannon in an article published by YES! Weekly last June. “In order to get that cool downtown environment you’ve got to get people outside.”
Parklets are designed to be temporary outdoor seating areas that turn a few parking spaces into usable outdoor seating for the public. They are intended to augment outdoor space near existing businesses in an economical way, providing a low-cost solution for the demand for increased public open space.
Parklets are all the rage in San Francisco, with 38 installed. Raleigh has an emerging parklets program, one that city staffers looked to when guiding Harrison’s effort through the regulatory maze of transportation, commercial zoning and business license regulations involved during at least five months of work on the project.
As late as the March 16 DGI executive committee meeting, Interim DGI CEO Cyndy Hayworth included a parklets construction timeline in the group’s review materials. The timeline memo estimated that all parklet materials were turned over to the city by March 13, and that with the city taking one month to review the site plans, construction could begin in mid-April.
Hayworth based her executive committee memo on an email Harrison sent her on Feb. 25. Harrison copied DGI Board Chair Gary Brame, Greensboro’s assistant city manager, David Parrish, and GDOT’s top engineer, Chris Spencer, on the note. Harrison spelled out “the major milestones we will need to reach before completion” and noted a few meeting delays due to winter weather in February.
“This is a collaborative effort and there are a lot of different moving pieces, which makes it all the more important that we have a reasonably, yet fairly aggressive, timeline to guide progress,” Harrison wrote.
Scuppernong Books and Triad Stage were identified as possible locations for the first parklets in Downtown Greensboro, with Scuppernong being chosen for the pilot location due to the owner’s interest in the project. The bookstore is located at 304 S. Elm St. in a building owned and renovated by Greensboro city council member Nancy Hoffman.
Bookstore owners were excited about the project, especially after DGI’s Harrison teamed up with UNCG professor Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll and her students from the Department of Interior Architecture to design parklets. The bookstore owners liked third-year student Alanea Kriet’s design.
As the project moved forward on many fronts, the city required Scuppernong Books to approach its neighbors with letters of support from businesses within a 300-foot radius. One of those neighbors was Alex Amoroso, owner of Cheesecakes by Alex, which is located across the street from Scuppernong Books.
Scuppernong Books owners sent the letter on March 3. The letter explained that the store had agreed to participate as the pilot site for Greensboro’s first parklet, which would be built with joint funds and maintained by the bookstore.
“Scuppernong Books is invested in downtown and the development of an open environment in downtown Greensboro,” said the letter, which was signed by part owners Brian Lampkin and Steve Mitchell. “We’re interested in what this project will bring to Elm Street and downtown by increasing public space and visible activity on the street.”
Amoroso received his letter and called city council member Zack Matheny on March 9. Matheny represents the downtown area on council. The support letter from Scuppernong included the store’s phone number and an offer to answer any questions, but Amoroso called Matheny, who in turn emailed DGI’s Hayworth.
Amoroso had not heard of the parklet program, Matheny wrote, and had questions that Matheny could not answer. He wanted to know how the business was chosen, who could participate, and how much the parklets cost.
Hayworth replied to the specific questions with general answers, but noted that the applicant would be responsible to pay for upkeep.
“Keep in mind this first parklet is a pilot,” Hayworth emphasized. “Questions and input from the public and downtown property owners will certainly influence the final guidelines that surround these projects.”
Matheny received her reply and forwarded it to assistant city manager Parrish and Mayor Nancy Vaughan about 10 minutes later.
“Do we have a good handle on how this is going to work,” Matheny asked. “How did the first pilot get chosen?” The question appeared rhetorical, especially since Matheny had asked Parrish for a full accounting of the parklets program just two weeks earlier.
Matheny emailed Parrish on Feb. 24, copying Vaughan, asking for a detailed update on the project and the larger streetscape plan DGI is considering.
“I have heard a lot about these two topics lately and how close they are to being complete,” Matheny wrote. “Will you please give me details (on) where these projects are, and what concerns there are as well.”
Parrish offered to update Matheny in person prior to that day’s council work session, but Matheny requested a full written summary. This was the same day that DGI’s Harrison sent Hayworth the projected parklets completion timeline.
Parrish explained the parklets background to Matheny, noting the work staff had put into the concept since the previous summer. Staff considered using a temporary right of way (TROW) encroachment, similar to construction barriers in downtown streets. The applicant would have to pay $5 per day per space for the TROW permit.
“This method could be used on a temporary basis to evaluate and make adjustments after a trial period,” Parrish wrote. The space would have to be open to the public, and not limited to business patrons, he noted. Staff expected a plan submission in the coming weeks.
“We are waiting on this submission, possibly in March. They would like to have one installed by April/May,” Parrish wrote.
Between Matheny’s email to Hayworth on March 9 and the next DGI board meeting on March 19, work on the parklets concept advanced. GDOT worked to define the scope of businesses Scuppernong Books would need to approach with letters of support, and negotiations over the fee required to occupy the unmetered parking spaces in front of the bookstore evolved.
Many of Greensboro’s highest ranking officials were involved in the conversation, including the assistant city manager, at least two members of the city attorney’s office, the top two officials at GDOT, and a handful of other staffers either working on the regulations or discussing the concept at hand.
On March 18, Ryan Saunders with Create Your City, approached city officials to let them know that Todd Olsen, owner of The Boiler Room on McGee Street, “is willing and motivated to fund a parklet in front of his bar …”
DGI’s Harrison replied that he was “looking forward to following up on this,” but the drive to create parklets in Downtown Greensboro would end in quick order in the next few days.
Part III of this series will run in next week’s YES! Weekly. !