Weeks after the first of the steel-structured platforms started showing up in front of city restaurants that requested them, Richmond’s pilot parklet program continues to roll out with more of the pop-up patios popping up around town.
The remaining three of five parklets that the city recently acquired have been placed, adding to two that kicked off its “Picnic in a Parklet” program with placements in front of Church Hill restaurant Nile and in front of Joe’s Inn in the Fan.
The three newest parklets are in front of Stir Crazy, a coffee shop on MacArthur Avenue in Bellevue; Hot for Pizza, on Leigh Street in Carver; and ice cream shop Scoop, on Strawberry Street in the Fan. The latter two were placed late last week.
Also in the works are two other parklets that are privately funded and making their way through the city’s permitting process. Last week, the city Planning Commission approved a parklet design for the 100 block of West Brookland Park Boulevard, where Ms. Bee’s Juice Bar is working with HKS Architects on a custom-designed parklet in front of its storefront.
And in Jackson Ward, Art180 is working with Walter Parks Architects on a parklet in front of its gallery on West Marshall Street — part of a larger plan funded by a $25,000 grant for enhancements and public art at the intersection of Marshall and Brook Road.
While considered public spaces, the city-purchased parklets are intended to provide areas for outdoor gathering and eating of lightly packaged to-go meals, as opposed to outdoor dining areas for a specific restaurant or business. The city purchased the five “StreetDeck” parklets from Montana-based Archatrak for $10,000 apiece, using an allotment of federal CARES Act funding.
Businesses that requested them are, however, considered their caretakers and stewards, responsible for their general upkeep and making them inviting, as well as for placing and maintaining their associated furniture.
“The restaurants, as stewards of the parklets, will be able to place chairs and tables out for diners to use,” said Sam Schwartzkopf, a spokesperson for the city. “All of the parklets are associated in some fashion with a business that can make the parklet a welcoming public space, for patrons or other parklet-goers.”
Earlier this month, downtown furniture store LaDiff donated $8,000 worth of outdoor bistro tables and chairs specifically for the parklets. The donation was made to nonprofit Venture Richmond, which helped develop the program and in turn donated them to the city.
“Totally unsolicited,” Max Hepp-Buchanan, Venture Richmond’s director of riverfront and downtown placemaking, said of LaDiff’s participation. “They just came to us and said, ‘Would you like to take this furniture for the parklets?’ We accepted the donation and have this nice, high-quality, colorful furniture out on loan in all the different parklets.”
Hepp-Buchanan, who helped lead the program’s development along with Jason Alley, a local restaurateur and provisional policy adviser to the city, said the restaurants are taking different approaches to the parklets and figuring out how to best secure and protect the furniture from theft or vandalism.
Stir Crazy, for example, has been taking in its furniture when it closes mid-afternoon, leaving that parklet without seating that neighboring businesses could use. Hepp-Buchanan said adjustments can be made if businesses request them, adding that other restaurants are open longer and keeping their furniture out later. He said securing the furniture to the parklets with wires also is being considered.
“The parklet itself is public space. But the furniture that goes in it is not owned by the public, so we’re trying to figure out ways that it can be as inviting as possible all hours of the day while also preventing against theft and vandalism,” he said. “They’ve only been on the ground for a few weeks, so we’re still trying to iron out some of those key details.”
The modular decks are made of steel and include railings, porcelain pavers and planters, which businesses have been filling with plants and flowers, giving each their own personality, Hepp-Buchanan said.
“All of the parklets, even though they’re all the same, have started to take on their own aesthetic, because of the preferences of the stewards who have adopted them,” he said.
The city’s parklets measure 6 by 12 feet and take up about the same amount of curbside street space as a standard-size vehicle parking space. At that size, each parklet can only fit so many tables and chairs while still providing for pandemic-era social distancing.
Acknowledging the space limitations, Hepp-Buchanan said, “These five prefabricated parklets are a little bit smaller than what you would normally put in for a custom-made parklet, but it allows us to try parklets on for size and get a sense of” how they work in certain neighborhoods and in front of different businesses.
“We get to experiment for a period of months, and if it doesn’t work, they can be packed up and relocated. We’re just going to see how it goes,” he said.
He added that the parklets are just one of several options available to businesses wanting more outdoor space, noting the custom-made, privately funded parklets, as well as city-authorized encroachments allowing sidewalk cafés.
Since the start of the pandemic, the city has received and approved 17 requests for temporary outdoor dining encroachments through its ordinance allowing sidewalk cafés, according to city data.
Businesses behind those requests have included Alchemy Coffee, Alewife, Bamboo Café, Bar Solita, Barrio, Beauvine Burger Concept, Chez Foushee, Continental Westhampton, Dutch and Co., En Su Boca, The Hill Café, Kuba Kuba, L’Opossum, Sidewalk Café, Social 52, Stella’s and Sticky Rice.
Hepp-Buchanan said the parklet that HKS is designing for Ms. Bee’s Juice Bar includes a baseline design — a wooden platform with railings — that businesses can work off of to request their own parklets. He said the cost to build the baseline design would start at about $3,000, with the price increasing with customizations.
A GoFundMe page has been set up to raise funds for the Ms. Bee’s parklet, and Hepp-Buchanan said he’s also applying for grants and seeking corporate sponsorships. As of Friday, the GoFundMe page had raised over $2,000 from 35 donors, with a fundraising goal of $10,000.
Of the city-purchased parklets, Hepp-Buchanan said their $10,000 cost is justified in the materials involved and their portability.
“I think for the materials that the parklet is made out of it’s a reasonable expense, because they have big stone pavers in them and there’s a lot of metalwork in the parklets. But there are ways to do this more affordably,” he said, referring to the custom-made parklets and other options.
“It should be more of this scattershot approach until we figure out what works best,” he said. “None of this has been done before. We’ve had a parklet ordinance on the books since 2016, and we haven’t had a parklet on the ground until a month ago.”