St. Louis Park officials are testing out a parklet — portable parks built on street parking spaces — to see how residents like having a convenient spot to eat a sandwich, hold a book club meet or just meet a friend.
The city has installed the 7½-by-14-foot wooden structure, complete with benches and planters, outside a commercial strip at 6416 W. Lake St. If the response is positive, they could spread to other neighborhoods around the city.
So far so good, observers say.
"They love it," said Julio Margalli, who with his wife, Sharon, owns Mexico City Cafe next to the parklet. "People will drive by and it's like, 'Whoa, they have this out!' They're really excited about it."
Darius Gray, the city's community organizer, said he has received lots of positive feedback.
"People say, 'Oh, what is this? This is so cool. I would love to see this in more places,' " he said.
Minneapolis, which approved parklets in 2014, owns a few and allows some business owners to install their own in parking spaces outside their shops, with the understanding that they still constitute public property.
Parklets can range in design, price and size, sometimes occupying two or more parking spaces. It has benches and partial walls made of cedar planks, and marigolds and zinnias grow in the planters along with cilantro, tomatoes and peppers. People are welcome to help themselves to the veggies; Margalli grabbed a few snips one night when he ran out of cilantro.
Temporary and portable, a parklet can be assembled or dismantled in a couple of hours, stored inside over the winter and moved to different locations. Typically, a nearby business owner will agree to keep it tidy and water the plants but can't claim the space as part of the business.
They're extensions of the sidewalk, where visitors can bring food and do pretty much whatever they like within the rules for public spaces, which means no alcohol or commercial business. They can provide seating during local festivals and other events.
Occasionally someone complains about a parklet taking up parking space, but they're often located in areas where parking is plentiful. Some business owners worry that they'll block views of their establishments but often find the opposite happens — they draw attention from passersby.
Gray, who helped start a parklet program in St. Paul as part of a community organizing group called the Friendly Streets Initiative, said he'd like to open a conversation about people "reclaiming a space" typically granted to motor vehicles.
"Not everyone has the means to own a car," he said. "But everyone has the means to sit in a parklet that's available to all."
Minneapolis usually gets two or three requests a year from businesses or other organizations wanting to sponsor and maintain parklets, said Kelsey Fogt, a transportation planner in the city's Public Works Department.
"Overwhelmingly we get positive feedback on them," she said.
In a 2017 survey, owners of Minneapolis businesses that hosted parklets said they were well used and enhanced their streets. Eighty percent said the parklets' value outweighed the loss of parking.
"We just think it's nothing but positive," said Ian Pierce, chef and general manager of Dipped & Debris, a sandwich and frozen custard shop that opened in northeast Minneapolis last September. "It's great, it adds some pop to the sidewalk, it's eye-catching because of its nice flower boxes, and the wooden and metal construction adds an outdoor ambience that wouldn't be there otherwise."
The first parklets appeared in 2010 in San Francisco, which now has 57 of them. The concept spread to cities across the country, possibly soon to include Rushford, Minn. City officials there have applied to the Minnesota Department of Transportation for permission to place one in front of a coffee shop on Hwy. 30, which runs through the city of 1,700 about 50 miles southeast of Rochester.
"It should be a nice little feature and it will definitely stand out in the little town of Rushford," said City Administrator Tony Chladek. "It'll be pretty cute."
But advocates see parklets as more than simply cute. They hope they'll enliven streets, improve walkability, slow cars, build community and reduce inequity.
Parklets "are far more than seating," said Gina Simi, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco planning department, in an e-mail. "Parklets reflect the diversity and creativity of the people and organizations who sponsor and design them. They also reflect the city's commitment to encouraging walking, bicycling, and strengthening our communities."
St. Louis Park City Council Member Margaret Rog, who held office hours Saturday at the parklet, said she thinks that parklets will "get people in the habit of thinking about their streets differently, but in a fun way that's accessible to all." She said she'd like to see parklets eventually located in every neighborhood.
"It's a baby step toward the idea of changing mind-sets," Rog said.