What was once a patch of asphalt takes on a second life as something more. It’s a green space. It’s a cafe patio. It’s an open-air reading nook and music room. It’s a few parking spaces, but on Friday it was a park.
Local landscape architecture, planning and industrial design firm Corvus Design brought Park(ing) Day to Juneau on Friday during business hours, joining communities around the world. The first Park(ing) Day was in San Francisco in 2005, but in 2011, when statistics were last available, more than a thousand communities participated, making parks from parking spaces.
Corvus Design Landscape Architect Christopher Mertl, who has long been involved with planning and design projects around the city, took on the planning of Juneau’s Park(ing) Day himself, as a way to showcase what open spaces in an urban streetscape can do.
Using just a few parking spaces on Front Street between Seward and Main Streets, Corvus Design created an open space, a “pocket park.”
“We really don’t have a lot of open space in the downtown area. The intent is to provide an environment that supports local businesses and attracts people to come downtown,” Mertl said. “There’s plenty of research out there that if you have aesthetic streetscapes — open space, trees, benches, patios for cafes and restaurants — you create a dynamic downtown core that is an attraction.”
Mertl said the project was taken on in the spirit of the push for downtown revitalization and improvement. The Park(ing) Day temporary space has the blessing of the Downtown Business Association and partners: The Rookery Cafe and Alaska Robotics.
Rookery Cafe co-owner Travis Smith committed to having waitstaff available to serve the eatery’s offerings, from espresso drinks to pastries to made-to-order dishes, at the open-air seating. The restaurant gave away a gift certificate as a door prize (despite the lack of doors) to a visitor.
Alaska Robotics’ Aaron Suring stocked the spot with graphic novels from the shop’s collection and set up a community drawing and coloring activity. Another visitor was awarded a gift certificate to the shop.
City and Borough of Juneau Parks and Recreation provided some green with artificial turf, creating a park-like feel. Maglin Site Furnishings provided seating and tables. Canopies were also a key part of the event, due to Juneau’s decidedly autumnal weather.
While naysayers of the Park(ing) Day event might cry foul at losing a couple of parking spaces, Mertl doesn’t want that to be the focus. He’d rather look at the larger concept: having an inviting streetscape and a vibrant downtown.
“By creating something that’s new, like a small pocket park with a cafe patio, some landscaping and some nice park furnishings, we want people to reenvision what downtown can be,” Mertl said. “I’m not saying we need to give up parking, but with good planning, we can create these spaces and still provide the parking that’s required.”
Business owners like Smith value street parking but also see the value in having a downtown where people enjoy walking from shop to shop, or where businesses have space to interact with the outside environment to draw people in or take advantage of Juneau’s sunny days.
“We’d love to have outdoor seating,” Smith said. “For us, it’s not an option. There’s no sidewalk space for us to put anything on and the back of the cafe is an alley. We talked about doing something with it, but I don’t think it’s realistic.”
Utilizing open space along the streetscape can allow businesses and pedestrians to interact.
Suring said having that kind of space to include the community in activities is “really good for the community and downtown.”
Smartgrowthamerica.org has published a series of fact sheets about the benefits of “Complete Streets,” like what Park(ing) Day promotes. These sheets cover everything from safety to economic development.
Studies show these attractive streetscapes stimulate the economy, encourage investment and increase property values (http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/documents/cs/factsheets/cs-economic.pdf) — all benefits to downtown business and property owners.
Mertl worked on the Seward Street revamp of eight years ago and said the benefits of wider sidewalks and trees were notable.
“We worked with local businesses and created wider sidewalks, aesthetic paving and landscaping — It’s really been a catalyst for the rejuvenation of Seward Street,” Mertl said. “Ten years ago it was in decline. It was challenging to be a pedestrian, and the success of a downtown is based on pedestrian traffic and getting people to spend time in downtown.”
Initially, more businesses showed interest in participating in Park(ing) Day, which was first envisioned as occupying various parking spaces around downtown, but costs associated with providing liability insurance for the pop-up parks — $500 per space, as required by the city — made participation difficult.
“I understand CBJ needs to do this from a risk management perspective,” Mertl said. “There are definitely challenges that need to be overcome. I’d like to continue to do this but think the liability insurance is a challenge. People are putting a lot of time, money and effort into buying materials, then there’s that extra layer. They’re doing it for the community, for celebration, to promote downtown and provide something fun.”
The event originated as a guerilla movement, with organizers maxing out parking meters, but, at least in Juneau, it has become a permitted event with all the associated costs.
For Mertl, the cost was worth it to create a community open space.
“It allows people to interact, to slow down,” he said. “It improves the quality of life.”
Naysayers may also cry “rain,” but Mertl said, “It’s easy to say we can’t because of the weather, but let’s work around the weather” with overhangs, canopies, heat lamps and counting on Juneau’s tendency to do most anything despite the rain.
It’s possible to create safe, enjoyable spaces that tell something about the story of the community, Mertl said.
“Park(ing) Day is an extension of celebrating and trying to improve our community for residents and visitors, having an economically successful downtown,” he said. “In my mind, parks and open space and complete streets are a vital part of creating a successful downtown.”