Just as it sounds, the term parklet refers to its diminutive stature. It’s usually a parking space, sometimes two, that’s converted into, say, extra outdoor seating or a shrunken dining area. They can be built out like a wood deck with benches and fencing, maybe even flower boxes and bike racks, or they can be bare-bones with a table and chairs. The latter is something Dallas wants to test out across the city as early as next week, when it begins accepting parklet permit applications from businesses that want to give it a short-term try.
This week, the city’s Ad Hoc Committee on COVID-19 Economic Recovery and Assistance discussed rolling out a pilot program. Former Council member Angela Hunt and Kourtny Garrett, CEO and president of Downtown Dallas, Inc., worked with the city to develop a plan to help Dallas’ small businesses adjust to today’s new reality. After collecting hundreds of suggestions, one need in particular “bubbled to the top of that priority list,” says Garrett, “and that’s the need for a lot of our street-level business—our restaurants and our retailers—to have the ability to increase their square footage or footprint” at a low cost.
As businesses, especially restaurants, continue to navigate partial capacity restraints and practice social distancing, parklets stood out as a tool to create more room for people picking up to-go orders without crowding sidewalks or provide appropriately spaced outdoor dining areas.
“We’re thinking it might actually help folks feel more comfortable about getting back out there and spending money again, helping small businesses,” says North Oak Cliff Council member Chad West, who championed the topic. “We still have the weather to capture outdoor seating. It encourages people to get outside…and engage with your neighborhood again in a safe, socially distant kind of way.”
But the idea about bringing them to Dallas stretches back a decade. “People have been wanting to see this happen for a long time, and I’m really glad to see this temporary parklet initiative go through because I think that’s really going help us see permanent installations as soon as folk get used to how it functions, how it can be really good for businesses,” says Amanda Popken. She’s the CEO of her eponymous development company, an advocate for community-oriented urban design, and project manager for a parklet slated for a space outside of Veracruz Cafe in Bishop Arts.
After securing a grant from the North Central Texas Council of Goverments, Popken has been working with the Bishop Arts Merchants Association, property owners, and others “for a good long time” to get particular parklet happening. But Popken isn’t the only one in the parklet game. “Jason Roberts has had a huge influence in Oak Cliff in general and just being forward-thinking about making our little corner of Dallas as sustainable as possible and fun and beautiful and family friendly,” she says.
Roberts is founding director of the Dallas-based Better Block and his company has built parklets in cities everywhere, long before the pandemic forced their hands. Groups from Portland to Boston have asked for parklet guidance.
More recently, though, he installed one right in front of Revelers Hall which he co-owns with Amy Wallace Cowan. Their proto-parklet—a 20-by-8-foot structure that extends off the sidewalk like a deck, as seen in an Eater Dallas blog post—is a prime example of what a typical, more permanent iteration would like. “We wanted to get a model out that people could see first hand,” says Roberts. It went up almost overnight. “Our team really already had the expertise; it really wasn’t that difficult.” The Better Block team also knows how to make it feel robust and “roomy enough to have social distancing in place.” They could fit three tables in it, set six feet apart, or use the platform for musicians. By day, neighboring El Jordan Cafe uses the additional space.
For now, however, parklets that the city will green-light won’t be as substantial as the one Better Block built. “We’re talking about something a little bit different here, something that truly is more of a quick win,” says Garrett. “What we’re talking about in this temporary program are things like simply moving tables and chairs out into the right of way or adjacent parking space, being able to push display rack out in front of retailers’ front doors.”
These parklets are temporary in set up as well as time. Permits will be swiftly issued in a matter of three or so days (down from the usual 10-day turnaround), but will last only 10 days with the option to renew that will last until a total of 60 days is reached. If businesses can meet the requirements on the application—the proposed parklet wouldn’t obstruct access to storm drains, or be located on street with a speed limit higher than 35mph, as a couple of examples—then the city will approve a temporary permit on a first-come, first-served basis (fees start at $100, more if you want to serve alcohol).
West says that we’ll likely see most of these temporary parklets pop in Dallas’ denser, more walkable neighborhoods like Deep Ellum, Bishop Arts District, Lower Greenville, and Uptown. Popken hopes parklets will become an enduring fixture in Dallas neighborhoods, and she’s working on making a case for a permanent program to the city council after these early trials.
There are still a few things to tease out for the parklet program, she says, like determining whether they’re true public spaces, as they are in other cities. Luckily successful models already exist. San Francisco launched its program back in 2010, and since then the National Association of City Transportation Officials has helped cities all over the U.S. launch parklet programs. “NACTO has designed standards so it’s really easy for a city staff to feel confident,” says Popken, who formerly worked in economic development for the City of Dallas for years.
Better Block, among other local architect and design firms, can certainly help other Dallas businesses craft parklets when the time comes. “Our plans can be adapted pretty easily just like taking a recipe and modifying the serving size,” says Roberts. And for city leaders like West, the time can be sooner rather than later.
The city’s been discussing parklets for over a year, says West, “looking at doing semi-permanent and permanent parklet concepts to encourage more walkable, thoughtful neighborhoods.” If there’s any silver lining surrounding the coronavirus pandemic—and why not look for those little victories while we can?—it could be a more engaging cityscape.
“There’s nothing good about COVID, but one of the opportunities that we have out of this unfortunate situation, is to reassess our current way of getting around, our current way of living in the city and to try to some temporary changes to our way life,” says West, “And one of those is with a parklet.”
As a former City Hall staffer, Popken says, in the past, “there’s been a lingering culture of not wanting to stick your neck out for decades and try new things for decades,” but, she adds “I’m glad it seems like we’re finally moving past that with a lot of new staff.” West agrees. “It’s given staff the ability to take chances on things to try to help the situation, and I think we can use parklets as an example to try other things outside the box,” says West, who cites other projects like expanded bike lanes and more pedestrian friendly sidewalks.
“I’m excited about the potential for more outdoor public space improvements overall,” says Roberts. “Dallas has been a little slower than other cities to adopt some of the more progressive ideas in the public realms. We have some good examples of what we’ve done, like Klyde Warren Park, but I think now everyone is seeing the gaps that exist.”
So the keys for success are here for Dallas. We’ll see if the city’s first parklets lead to permanent fixtures.