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THE END OF a SIMPLE IDEA

(Last Updated On: February 15, 2017)

by Jeff Sykes

jeff@yesweekly.com | @jeffreysykes

In the third week of March the drive to create a parklet outside of a Downtown Greensboro bookstore was entering its final stage.

The bookstore, Scuppernong Books on South Elm Street, was ready to pay part of the construction costs and cover the outdoor seating space under its own insurance policy.

The man driving the initiative, Downtown Greensboro Inc.’s project manager, Steven Harrison, had been negotiating with city officials to secure right of way permissions and to create a regulatory framework for future parklets once the pilot project at Scuppernong Books proved successful.

DGI’s interim CEO, Cyndy Hayworth, included a parklet construction timeline in the materials for the organization’s March 16 executive committee meeting. Two days later, Ryan Saunders with Create Your City, emailed city officials to let them know that another business owner was interested in funding a parklet.

Saunders said 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 this was the high-water mark for the project.

What killed the idea of creating parklets in Greensboro? The answer, like many mysteries, is complicated. Weaving together threads from disparate email conversations viewed by YES! Weekly as part of a public records request allows for the outline to become visible.

Three main factors contributed to the demise of the parklets concept in Downtown Greensboro. Despite their popularity in San Francisco, where 38 public seating areas have been carved out of on-street parking spaces, and the emergence of parklets in Raleigh, Greensboro’s initiative bogged down with the goal in sight.

Momentum on the parklets issue stalled over a minor fee the city would require for a temporary right of way permit. It then hit the wall and came to a dead stop when opposing views arose regarding who would actually control the space. This lull in momentum gave political interests the opening needed to enter the discussion and move it in a different direction.

PERMITS AND FEES

When the parklets concept began to gain steam in late 2014, city officials determined that the best course of action would be to use a temporary right of way (TROW) permit process to bring the plan to completion.

The Greensboro City Attorney’s office researched the best methods, and determined that parklets should be treated as encroachments. Encroachment agreements are contracts between the city and the sponsor of the parklet.

Assistant City Attorney Jennifer Schneier wrote the initial memo on the topic in December 2014, and would stay in touch with GDOT’s Chris Spencer, among others, as the regulatory discussion evolved.

“The creation of such contracts offers flexibility in deciding various details and policies concerning the parklets,” Schneier wrote. “It is appropriate for City Council to give initial approval for the Parklets Program because of various policy considerations involved.”

Spencer had concerns about the city’s existing policies and how they would allow for parklets while maintaining pedestrian flow and accessibility.

The consensus settled on the TROW, which would utilize an existing permit process as opposed to creating new encroachment contracts. By January, Schneier had come around to this view. In answering a question from Assistant City Manager David Parrish, Schneier noted on Jan. 26 that Scuppernong Books was ready to proceed with a parklet.

“The best way to get this underway, and quickly, is for them to sign a Temporary Right-of-way Encroachment agreement with GDOT,” Schneier wrote.

Spencer pointed out that the TROW process is controlled in house by GDOT and does not flow through the city manager’s office. Spencer included a draft encroachment document to the group, which he crafted based on language from the City of Raleigh.

But permits require fees, and in this case the discussion of the appropriate fee would become an obstacle. Spencer and DGI’s Harrison spent the last week of January trying to arrange a meeting to discuss policy specifics. The fruits of those discussions are revealed in a Jan. 30 email from Spencer in which he outlines GDOT’s decisions regarding fees and required petitions for the project to move forward.

Spencer decided that the bookstore would need to get petitions of support from businesses within a 300-foot radius on both sides of the street. Harrison advocated for a lower fee structure for the parklet in exchange for it being “fully public,” but Spencer indicated that the fees would remain.

“We can discuss modifying the fee going forward if we implement a parklet program, but for the purposes of the pilot, we’re utilizing the TROW encroachment ordinance which has a predefined fee structure,” Spencer wrote.

That would amount to a $15 application fee and $5 per space per day.

Throughout February activity focused on the design presentations by students from UNCG’s Department of Interior Architecture and finalizing the application and permit regulations. The parking fee came up again on March 13, with DGI’s Hayworth asking Assistant City Manager Parrish if the fee could be waived.

Though the parking spaces in front of Scuppernong Books are unmetered, two-hour spots, the city was insisting on the $5 per day, per space fee. That would amount to an estimated cost of $3,650 a year for a parklet to occupy two parking spaces.

The bookstore was willing to pay part of the construction costs of the project, and to extend its insurance to the space, but was not willing to “pay any fees associated with the pilot-parklet,” according to Hayworth.

Parrish responded that the fee was required.

“Using the ROW policy, we charge a $5 fee as discussed this morning,” Parrish wrote. “This was our position from the beginning. This is in line if not lower than most other communities that have parklets.”

PUBLIC ACCESS

The debate over public access plagued the initiative from the very beginning. The San Francisco model of parklets is very clear that these are public spaces, not cafe areas extended from a business front. Though food and beverage service varies per space, the idea of public access remains clear.

Conversations wondered aloud about how a Greensboro business owner could control the space, but GDOT chief Adam Fischer explained the city’s position early on.

“Whether or not you call these spaces sidewalk cafes or parklets, the space cannot be reserved solely for a particular restaurant,” Fischer wrote in a Dec. 17 email. “If I or anyone else wants to sit down at the table, but do not want to eat, then you have to allow us to sit there. These are public spaces open to the public.”

The issue of control and access remained on the table in February when DGI’s Harrison asked Parrish for clarification.

“We should be as clear as possible about their ability to control the space, for instance in case someone is being rude/disruptive/or in any other way a nuisance I would imagine Scuppernong could restrict that individual from use of the parklet,” Harrison wrote.

Parrish responded with vague language to be included in the TROW permit, to the effect that “the sponsor shall report this to the Greensboro Police Department.” He also reiterated that the space “is determined to be open to the public.”

Harrison asked for further clarification, but new DGI board chair, Gary Brame, jumped into the conversation, as did Hayworth.

“Do we have the ability to ‘couch’ this in a way that gives the business a little more control,” Brame asked. “For instance, a sentence that gives the business patrons preference to seating over a pedestrian, tourist, etc., that may occupy space (seating) that the business could use for their patrons?” Despite repeated statements from the city since December that the space would be considered public, Hayworth also asked about giving preference to customers.

“If a paying customer from Scuppernong wants to sit and eat their purchased food in the parklet, how does Scuppernong clear that space for the customer,” Hayworth asked. “I am having a hard time understanding how a parklet can be both public and private. If it is private then the public just walks by, as they do with seating in front of restaurants that have seating on the sidewalk. If there is signage that indicates that the space is for Scuppernong patrons only, then the space is reserved. But I find it hard to sort out how a parklet can be both.”

The owners of Scuppernong Books made clear in separate interviews that their own understanding was that the parklet would be a public space, open to anyone to enjoy, and that they would view disruptions or other issues the same as any general nuisance that occurred on the sidewalk.

POLITICAL ENDGAME

March 19 was the end of the parklets initiative in Greensboro. The DGI board of directors met that day, with Harrison providing a project update. The board minutes reflect a disjointed conversation, with Greensboro City Council member Zack Matheny eventually directing the conversation in a new direction.

Matheny had by then announced his interest in becoming DGI’s next president. Harrison recounted the progress of the parklets program, but noted the momentum had stalled.

“A few prevalent factors include:

regulatory issues …; the City would not waive fees for use of the parking spaces which would cost $4,000 to the parklet owner; and the parklet was public versus private, giving the parklet owner no authority or controls over the use of the parklet,” the meeting minutes state.

Matheny suggested that the parklet concept be dropped in favor a streetscape along the 300 block of South Elm Street. Three days later Matheny sent out a plan description in an email to the city’s executive team, Mayor Nancy Vaughan, council member Nancy Hoffman (who owns the building where Scuppernong Books is located), and several DGI board members.

Matheny wanted to take the entire 300 block of South Elm Street for a trial for on-street dining and creative space. Because of the activity on the block (M’Coul’s, Natty Greene’s, Cheesecakes by Alex, 1618 expansion, Scuppernong Books), Matheny felt it would be “the ideal block to perform a trial.”

The councilman seemed to describe a plan in which all parking spaces on one side of the street would be incorporated into the sidewalk, protected by large barricades or planters. This extra sidewalk space would make room for cafe seating on the existing sidewalk.

“The City can then authorize a temporary easement of the existing sidewalk to the adjoining property owner for their individual/business use,” Matheny wrote. “While the property would still be required to have liability insurance, the need to ‘rent’ the parking is gone, and thus we can potentially achieve what businesses, and the community, have been asking for.”

Matheny sent the email on March 22, a Sunday, just before 1 p.m. Hoffman, City Manager Jim Westmoreland, DGI’s Hayworth and board member Dawn Chaney, and Downtown Residents Association head Dianne Ziegler all replied in favor of Matheny’s idea before midnight.

First thing on Monday, Assistant City Manager Parrish and GDOT chief Fischer were planning a walking tour of the block. By the end of the day, GDOT’s Spencer had devised a plan to close off each parking space on the block with “a temporary curb and some planter boxes.”

“The costs comes in around $2,800 per parking space with this treatment,” Spencer wrote. !

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