'Parklet' program coming to Clement

by Thomas K. Pendergast

At least four pedestrian plazas and another four "parklets" around the City have either been built or are being designed but only one is expected for the west side right now.

In front of the Toy Boat Desert Cafe, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Clement Street, a couple of metered parking spaces might be taken out and replaced by a "parklet," a small area with plants and benches or perhaps also bike racks, where people can sit and relax without having to purchase anything at the cafe or anywhere else.

It's part of Mayor Gavin Newsom's Pavement to Parks Program, which imitates on a smaller scale the European tradition of having numerous outdoor plazas around town. Though not as prevalent on this side of the Atlantic, it's apparently an idea that's catching on in New York as well, where last year parts of Broadway were closed off to traffic and opened up to pedestrians. In recent media reports, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said the idea is so popular that he's going to make those closures permanent.

Andres Power, the project manager for San Francisco's Pavement to Parks Program, said the proposed parklet at Fifth Avenue and Clement Street is not even in the design stage at this point and he is in the process of finding a designer.

He expects at this time that the parklet will only remove two parking spaces in front of the cafe, although he admits that the conceptual design doesn't yet exist.

"There's a lot of things you can do with two spaces," said Power. "Clement Street is a vibrant commercial corridor and a lot of people are walking around there. So this will provide them with space for them to just sit down and relax and not just pass through.

"The idea is to test something out and if it doesn't work, we'll try something else."

Power said the project won't cost the City anything, as the materials and construction will all be privately donated and the City is currently "looking for a partner" in the maintenance of the parklet.

It's estimated that the parklet will probably cost about $7,000 and the donations or funding will be managed through the San Francisco Parks Trust, a non-profit entity.

"My job is to identify a designer who will work for free and then work with that designer. Also, to identify different potential donors," Powers said.

He does have some rough concepts at this point, though very preliminary.

"The idea is to take one-to-two parking stalls away and build a platform of pretty hardwood, like a deck with plants on it and landscaping, benches and a bike rack, something very simple and easily maintainable."

Jesse Fink, owner and proprietor of the Toy Boat Desert Cafe, said he welcomes the parklet in front of his establishment because he agrees with the basic idea of the Pavement to Parks Program.

"It's sort of expanding the neighborhood street experience," Fink said. "Walking down the street is very nice. I'm probably the only store on Clement Street that has a bench outside. Most of the people who sit on my bench aren't my customers. They're people from the neighborhood. They're walking, they're shopping; they sit down and take a rest.

"I like the idea of people being able to sit outside and not necessarily being patrons of the business especially older people," he said.

Fink said he's more in favor of installing benches rather than tables and chairs "with proper arm rests so people can't sleep on them. You know, you have to think of the practicality of this. You don't want people sleeping on them overnight and in the morning they smell like urine. That's a reality."

There are already a couple of bike racks in the immediate area, although he's in favor of adding others because "the more the merrier."

"I think people who have bikes need places to tie 'em up," Fink said. "I think it will be wonderful for the neighborhood."

Berk Kinalilar, the owner and proprietor of Troya, a Turkish and Mediterranean restaurant that sits across the street from the cafe at that same intersection, said losing a couple of parking spaces will probably not affect his business because he's open more in the evening hours and people will likely not be outside then because of the weather, which tends to be chilly at night.

"The weather is already cold after five o'clock. I have my own outside seating," Kinalilar said. "Nobody wants to sit (outside) and I'm paying (the City) $500 a year to keep outside seating, which I use not more than 10 days a year.

"When I bought this restaurant four years ago, I was so excited to have outside seating and I planned to put in heaters and all that, but after a few weeks I realized that it's not possible to have outside seating here because after five o'clock it gets foggy, cold and really windy in this neighborhood. I've never been able to get anybody to sit outside after five o'clock."

Ken Roussell, a Richmond District resident who was hanging out at a saloon across the street, doesn't like the idea of giving up parking spaces for any reason.

"I don't think it will fly in the neighborhood," Roussell said. "I think parking is at a premium already, especially in these three blocks here on Clement. It's the worst traffic in the neighborhood, from early in the morning until late afternoon, with cars already double parked, waiting for parking spaces."

He doesn't buy the argument that offering people places to sit outside in front of businesses will help make Clement Street more of a destination point or increase the overall number of customers.

"Free benches? It's not going to really make that much difference," he said. "There's a lot of loitering on Clement anyway, as it is. You're just giving people more of a chance to loiter and block the traffic on the sidewalks as well as in the street."