You’d be forgiven for wondering what makes the city’s first parklet, a 28-foot-by-6-foot wooden platform surrounded by greenery with seating for 20 built into a parking space, a park in the first place.

There’s not a blade of grass in the thing.

There’s no room to kick a soccer ball, but it is a nice place to drink coffee and read a book.

“Patiolet” seems more fitting.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

The parklet – on 30th Street just north of University Avenue – in many ways looks like an extension of the sidewalk seating in front of Caffé Calabria. If not for a sign clarifying that it’s for everyone, it’d be easy to mistakenly think you need to buy a shot of espresso before sitting down.

It’s the first piece of the city’s pilot program to cede public right of way, in this case two parking spaces, to build five to 10 of the pedestrian-friendly areas citywide.

A week after the city christened the parklet with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, I camped out there for the day to get a sense of how and how often it was getting used.

Fewer than five non-Caffé Calabria customers used the parklet at any time from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday. The park’s heaviest rush of non-Calabria users came when two teenagers sat down to finish ice cream cones around 12:30. The rest of the day, all the parklet’s users were also Calabria customers. But that was just one day – hardly a scientific sample.

It was at least partially full throughout the morning. Large groups of friends, a couple and a few stray single coffee-drinkers talked, read or enjoyed the streetscape. There was also a guy with a big parrot on his shoulder.

By mid-afternoon, when Caffé Calabria started breaking down to switch to dinner service, the parklet was empty for a few hours straight, except for the odd reporter camped there, downing cups of coffee to maintain his ethical claim to the coffee shop’s wi-fi.

Calabria and the project’s architect, OBR Architecture, paid for the first parklet. The cost came in at close to $40,000.

Former Mayor Bob Filner embraced the pilot program and put Angela Landsberg, executive director of North Park Main Street, in charge of working with city staff to make the parklet happen.

She said the pilot program in many ways didn’t exist until they started getting the new parklet put in place.

“He said, ‘I want the parklet in North Park, let’s make this one happen,’ and in the process the program was created,” she said.

Broadly, the process requires approval of the business or businesses in front of the space, and a vote of approval from the respective community planning group.

And whoever’s requesting the parklet first needs to purchase an “encroachment permit” from the city’s development services department. The permit registers that the construction encroaches onto the public right of way, and the permit holder is agreeing to maintain the space. It works a lot like the existing process for permitting a sidewalk café.

“Getting this in the ground really started the pilot program,” Landsberg said. “People were waiting to see it, and just now I’m beginning to hear other people talking about getting new parklets going.”

More prospective parklets have been discussed in Little Italy, Hillcrest, Golden Hill and in other North Park locations.

The city’s role was basically limited to letting the thing happen. The project was also supported by the North Park Community Planning Committee, the Business Improvement Council and Councilman Todd Gloria’s office.

When Filner announced he was going to lead the charge to “bring parklets to the city of San Diego” in February, he said Caffé Calabria’s would be fully installed by May. It ended up taking until August, but the hope is the experience served to streamline the process for the next installments.

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Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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