Jonathon Weber: Repurposed parking spots could help save downtowns

Editor's note: This commentary is by Jonathon Weber, of Burlington, who is the Livable Streets program manager for Local Motion.

As Vermont businesses slowly reopen, physical distancing requirements may pose a particular challenge to our prized downtowns and village centers. Even in normal times, stores and restaurants must maximize every square foot of floor space to remain profitable — and many still struggle to stay afloat. For a restaurant, reducing the number of tables available could mean that opening and paying service staff simply isn’t financially viable. 

If the problem is density, how can Vermont’s municipalities give downtown and village commerce a little more breathing room? 

Parklets, sometimes referred to as street seats, might be part of the answer. These are exactly what they sound like: small parks or seating areas that can be constructed with low-cost materials in on-street parking spaces or parking lots. They give visitors a place to sit, talk, eat, read, and relax while being out in public. They’re generally temporary (especially in places with harsh winters), but sometimes inspire permanent repurposing of parking spaces. Some are open to the public all of the time, while others are reserved for customers during business hours. 

Soon, they could provide restaurants with crucial additional seating. For the small restaurants that line the streets of Vermont towns, a few extra tables in a parklet could mean the difference between profitability and shuttering. Creating places to sit and eat also increases the chances that customers now accustomed to takeout may linger in the neighborhood, potentially making purchases at other businesses rather than just picking up their food and going home. Outdoor seating might also be preferable from a transmission perspective.

There is solid precedent for the effectiveness of parklets in Vermont. Last year, Burlington piloted its own parklet program and summarized survey findings on the program in a report. In the public survey, about 88% of respondents said that they would like to see more street seats in Burlington. The host businesses all reported an increase in foot traffic and sales/business volume.

Installing parklets or street seats will almost certainly come at the cost of on-street parking. Despite perceptions of shortages, research and experience indicate that even busy towns have plenty of spots to go around. In fact, estimates suggest that some places in the United States have anywhere between three and 27 parking spaces for every household. In Burlington, which many consider lacking in parking, a study performed by UVM’s Transportation Research Center and the Burlington Business Association found that, collectively, downtown garages never dipped below 39% vacancy at peak hours.

When people talk about a lack of parking, often what they’re really talking about is having to walk a block or two to their destination after finding that parking spot. That’s a real concern for people with disabilities and for businesses receiving deliveries, which is why accessible parking spaces and loading zones should be preserved. For the rest of us, it’s worth considering the last time you actually couldn’t find a parking spot. Besides, what’s the point in being able to park in front of your destination if you can’t get a table? To quote renowned city planner Jeff Speck, “Would you rather have a downtown that is quick to drive through, or one that is worth arriving at?” 

Healthy businesses are key to vital towns, and facilitating a local parklet program is an easy and inexpensive way for local officials to help keep commerce viable. Town officials should develop a streamlined permitting process with bare-bones requirements for parklet construction, promote the opportunity, and leave the rest to the businesses. Avoid permitting fees to the greatest extent possible, and resist the urge to disincentivize this program by charging cash-strapped businesses expensive meter encumbrance fees for the repurposed parking spots. Otherwise, you might sacrifice businesses while trying to preserve the meter revenue that they generate.

We’ve allocated huge amounts of public space for cars, while it’s often difficult to find a bench or a safe place to walk. As a result, the street life that supports local businesses had largely vanished from many towns long before Covid-19. This year, parklets and other streetscape adaptations may teach us that it makes economic sense to give people a place to be, too. Hopefully it’s one of many lessons that we don’t forget when this pandemic is over.

Parklet Resources

Burlington's 2019 Parklet Pilot Report

NACTO Parklets Design Guide

Tactical Urbanism Materials Guide

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