East Bay Parklets Are Good for Hanging Out
Our guide to East Bay parklets highlights cleverly designed oases from Albany and Berkeley to Oakland and San Leandro.
Parklet designed by Trachtenberg Architects, which also did Saul’s Deli.
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
On a recent evening around dusk, longtime Laurel district resident and jazz pianist Danny Myers sat on a bench outside The Laurel Cyclery, sipping a soda and tapping the screen of a cellphone. When asked if he was enjoying the parklet, he replied, “The what?”
Parklets are miniparks, occupying a portion of the public right of way, typically the space of two parking spots. Instead of cars, though, you’ll find tables, chairs, patio umbrellas, bike racks, thriving gardens, strings of lights, elaborate artwork, and quirky things: a eucalyptus log, a chalkboard, even a hammock.
Credit the parklet revolution to San Francisco circa 2005 when Rebar Art and Design Studio paid for a parking spot and added sod, a bench, and a potted tree and then stepped back to share the space. The phenomenon spread worldwide, and similar configurations began popping up in parking spaces every third Friday in September, dubbed PARK(ing) Day. San Francisco took the concept further through its Pavement to Parks program and in 2010 established five “temporarily permanent” (or permanently temporary) installations, called them parklets, and the trend was on. Riding the wave, Oakland and Berkeley launched pilot parklet programs, each propelled by dedicated restaurateurs.
There for public use — and subject to regulations as any park — the parklets are sponsored, constructed, and maintained privately, usually by a bordering business or two, but sometimes by property owners or neighborhood associations. The goal is to give people a place to sit and hang out in areas that traditionally don’t offer outdoor seating or parks.
“Street space is public space that we’ve yielded to cars,” said Ella Wise of Walk Oakland Bike Oakland, a nonprofit that helped push for Oakland’s pilot parklet program and that promotes annual PARK(ing) Day. Whereas cars are “dangerous and aggravating,” Wise said, parklets offer a creative alternative. “A low-cost, fun way to re-imagine what streets could be instead.”
The process can take years: obtaining permits, notifying neighbors, drawing up plans for city approval. The structure requires proper drainage, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and safety from traffic. And the entire parklet — platform, seating, railings, sculptures, shrubbery, whatever — must be “temporary” and ready to be dismantled if the city needs to regain the street.
Despite being designated public space, parklets receive no public funding. From start to finish, estimated costs for parklets range from $20,000 to $50,000, with at least one soaring to more than $100,000. Generally the sponsor pays some and receives additional funding from neighborhood associations, institutional grants, local businesses, and — a common practice in the parklet sphere — crowdfunding. (Managing that campaign took time and resources, recalled Catherine Macken of Subrosa Coffee, who co-sponsored a parklet with Manifesto Bicycles.) Architects often do parklets pro bono. Contractor friends give discounts. Local merchants contribute materials. Students design. Boy Scouts build. Neighbors roll up their sleeves to pitch in; then they all celebrate with a ribbon-cutting bash. The act of creating a community-oriented parklet is often a community-oriented effort itself.
As a business model, the parklet concept seems to work best for eateries with limited seating. Both Farley’s East in Oakland and The Cheese Board Collective in Berkeley saw significant increases in business after their parklets opened. But others are left with headaches. Peter Levitt, co-owner of Saul’s Deli in Berkeley, cited ongoing expenses: liability insurance, security cameras, electricity, irrigation, sanding and varnishing the wood, gardening, upkeep on umbrellas, erasing graffiti. While Saul’s extraordinary parklet is a gorgeous asset for everyone, all maintenance falls on the host.
Cali Kamala, co-owner of Hive, the place to bee — it’s a gathering and work space — and its accompanying parklet in Oakland’s Dimond district, agreed on those challenges, saying, “It’s one of the sore points, when people use it as a bathroom, or a bed, or destroy the plants.” But she shrugs it off. “That’s part of the deal when you have an outdoor space that’s accessible to everyone.” Overall, “We love our parklet.”
Although momentum has shifted like the fog, San Francisco boasts dozens of parklets, and the East Bay gradually adds more. Earlier this year, Albany opened the nation’s first bus stop parklet, a project in conjunction with AC Transit. Last year, San Leandro launched a parklet pilot study. And in May, the Berkeley City Council passed a parklet ordinance, thereby wrapping up the successful pilot program and making parklets permanent. In Oakland, the parklet pilot program has ended, with no set plans for proceeding. Many wannabes let the dream lapse, but a few businesses with outstanding permits are rallying to finish their parklets.
Parklets have a peculiar pull. There’s something appealing about seizing a chunk of pavement, bringing it to life, and offering it back to the community to share. For everyone — you, me, and Danny Myers, too.
As You Wish/Hal’s Office, 1207 Solano Ave., (est. February 2018): The nation’s first bus stop parklet. Exquisite landscaping, open layout, and ample seating may result in missed buses.
The Cheese Board Collective, 1512 Shattuck Ave., North Berkeley (est. August 2014): Nestled under a string of lights, Berkeley’s prototype parklet features colorful mosaic planters along with rustic benches, counters, and tables — all crafted from reclaimed wood from Cal Memorial Stadium.
Saul’s Restaurant & Delicatessen, 1475 Shattuck Ave., North Berkeley (est. November 2015): The thoroughbred of parklets, fit for a king: shades for the sun and lights for the night. Elegant round tables match the splendid perimeter bench, all surrounded by luscious succulents.
East Bay Spice Company, 2130-36 Oxford St., Downtown (est. June 2016): Curvy, sleek, and metallic, the design takes inspiration from the sign at UC Berkeley’s campus, kitty-corner to the parklet. A street-facing mural depicts a bear, the San Francisco skyline, and the word Berkeley.
Zachary’s Chicago Pizza/Pegasus Books, 1853 Solano Ave., Thousand Oaks (est. September 2017): A welcoming communal table marks the center of this communally completed parklet, built by a Boy Scout troop with Eagle Scout Emmet Hegarty at the helm.
The Butcher’s Son/Maker’s Common, 1954 University Ave., Downtown (est. December 2017): Well sheltered from traffic, the spacious area invites hanging out, with built-in benches and tables bordered by thick green shrubs.
Artichoke Basille’s Pizza, 2590 Durant Ave., Southside (est. March 2018): Plenty of places to perch, including a counter and a bench built around two existing trees. The tree wells were filled with a special material — made from recycled tires — that allows water to reach the roots.
Farley’s East, 33 Grand Ave., Uptown (est. September 2012): Green artificial turf, tree trunk slabs as table and bench, accented by vivid red furniture supplied during Farley’s open hours. Oakland’s first parklet, it followed the parklet built a year prior at the original Farley’s in San Francisco.
Manifesto Bicycles/Subrosa Coffee, 419-421 40th St., Temescal (est. November 2012): A work of art: Eight upright bike racks, custom designed and covered with vines, wait in the wings, while an iconic eucalyptus log, sculpted out of reclaimed wood from UC Berkeley’s campus, takes center stage.
Reynolds & Brown at Manna Gallery, 473-477 25th St., Uptown (est. July 2014): On a side street not heavily traveled by car, the parklet has a spare layout punctuated by big wooden barrels. Some are halved and cleverly configured, by which the top half becomes a stool, the bottom half a planter.
Hive, the place to bee, 2139 MacArthur Blvd., Dimond (est. December 2015): Seating is assimilated into the structure as stacked and angled shapes. The Hive provides chalk for the parklet’s built-in chalkboard.
Divco West , 315 20th St., Lakeside (est. April 2016): Cubes of various sizes and materials, sprouting plants and engraved with inspiration: “If not now then when?”
The Laurel Cyclery, 3715 MacArthur Blvd., Laurel (est. April 2016): To protect the parklet from cars, a super-cool railing artfully entwines a bike wheel and other bike parts. Shiny, silver, and galvanized to prevent rust — that’s one less chain to lube.
MLK Cafe/Longfellow Community Association, 3860 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Longfellow (est. May 2016): A whimsical replica of a trolley, bright blue and yellow with smooth wooden benches, this parklet honors the neighborhood’s history when trolleys traveled this stretch.
COMING SOMETIME (SOON?) TO OAKLAND
Spice Monkey Restaurant/Howden Market, 1628 Webster St., Downtown: Kanitha Matoury, restaurant and market proprietor, believes everyone — including herself — spends too much time inside, and she aims to change that with her parklet. She’s seen parklets around the world and envisions a similar slice of greenery among the high buildings in downtown Oakland. Her parklet’s final plans have been approved by the city — rope net hammock and all — and after spending years and thousands of dollars, she’s now launching a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for construction. Check out the parklet’s solar technology and all the details at GoFundMe.com/donate-to-the-oakland-parket.
Tay Ho Oakland Restaurant, 344 12th St., Downtown: Still holding the dream and the permit she received in Oakland’s pilot program extension, owner Denise Huynh soldiers on with drawings and intends to see her parklet through to completion.
Subrosa Coffee, 4008 Martin Luther King Jr. Way (Longfellow): Around the corner from MacArthur BART station, the cafe’s second location is involved in a special project with AC Transit and the city of Oakland — a bus stop and parklet combo, aka a “stoplet.” As drawings enter the final approval stage, Subrosa owner Catherine Macken enters the crowdfunding stage. Even if you don’t ride the bus, drink coffee, or hug trees, you can still be a part of local history by helping launch Oakland’s first stoplet. For updates, go to SubrosaCoffee.com or @subrosacoffee.