Parklets sparked by city innovation fund

Following the Gazette’s coverage on the lack of an in-depth public process for the City’s pilot parklet program, top Boston Transportation Department’s (BTD) officials met with the Gazette last month to talk funding and where the program could go in the future.

The City’s pilot parklet program is being funded from a new, one-time Streetscape Innovation Fund, Vineet Gupta, BTD director of policy and planning, told the Gazette during an interview with himself and Rachel Szakmary, BTD transportation planner and head of the parklet program.

A parklet is a small, semi-permanent public space that resembles a deck, created from two to three parking spaces. It may include tables and chairs, bicycle parking or planters, among other options.

Jamaica Plain is slated to get one of Boston’s first four parklets on Centre Street, across from Wyman Street. It will take up two parking spaces and have stools, benches and planters. The project has not had widespread public input, with three public meetings, two of which were held during off-hours. The City and Hyde/Jackson Square Main Streets performed localized outreach with flyers and door-to-door visits.

In the pilot program, the City will pay to design, build and install the parklets, with community partners keeping them maintained. In Hyde Square’s case, those partners will be restaurant Tacos El Charro and Sonia’s Bridal & Quinceañera. Future parklets will be fully paid for by businesses.

When the City decided to pursue parklets, members of the parklet program called other cities around the country that already had parklets for prices estimates and development suggestions, Gupta said.

During that research phase, the City learned that just building a parklet could easily cost $12,000, which accounts for the projected range of $15,000 to $25,000 to design, build and install each pilot parklet. The funds come from a new, one-time Streetscape Innovation Fund.

The Streetscape Innovation Fund is part of the City budget, and its purpose is to fund field tests of streetscape improvements. Along with parklets, the fund has supported the development of Mobile City Hall, a food-truck inspired mobile government services truck, new fire boxes throughout the city, and new parking analysis measures to help distribute vehicles to available parking.

The one-time $1 million fund was created as part of the fiscal year 2013 budget. It will fund new innovations until the original funds run out, at which point the fund will be re-evaluated and possibly refunded.

The idea behind parklets was first suggested by JP resident Michael Halle, Gupta said, during a Centre and South Streets Streetscape and Transportation Action Plan development meeting several years ago.

“We started doing research and parklets came across as a program that really makes a difference to a neighborhood,” Gupta said. “They create a place for people to meet. You can’t put a price [on many of a parklet’s benefits]. They’re intangibles.”

BTD scouted locations before deciding on three of four pilot sites in Jamaica Plain, Mission Hill and Allston-Brighton. A fourth potential pilot location has yet to be selected.

Potential future parklet partners have already approached BTD, including the Harvard School of Public Health, banks and artists’ groups in neighborhoods as diverse as Dorchester, South Boston and the Innovation District.

As for just adding benches and other seating on existing sidewalks around businesses instead of expanding the sidewalks on a semi-permanent basis, Gupta explained that that option is not always feasible.

“Parklets help preserve existing sidewalks by expanding them,” he said. “They’re also more attention-grabbing, more elaborate.”

“You might sit [at a parklet] for a few hours, not a few minutes,” Szakmary added.

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