By Jeff Nathanson
If you dropped by Small World Coffee last summer, you probably remember seeing the Princeton parklet sitting just out front. Maybe you even got the chance to get a seat and take a breather without leaving the action on Witherspoon Street.
Well, next month, we’re planning the return of the parklet downtown. We’re not sure yet where it’s going to be ‒‒ we’re still taking applications from merchants who want the parklet to be set up in front of their businesses ‒‒ but we know it’s going to fit in just right, wherever it goes.
If you don’t know about the parklet, also known as known as “street seats,” let me fill you in. Parklets are a growing phenomenon in cities and larger towns around the country. In exchange for two parking spaces, residents and visitors get a unique, transportable outdoor oasis that becomes an extension of the sidewalk. There, visitors can sip a nice coffee, have lunch, or just take in life downtown.
Parklets also provide a means for the community, artists, arts organizations, schools, residents and business owners to participate in designing and repurposing a parking space into a public art-based space. Our inaugural parklet last year was designed by an architect, and a team of builders and artists to be able to go anywhere and look inviting and unique wherever it would go.
As I mentioned, last year’s pilot parklet was set up in front of Small World Coffee in an effort to learn how visitors would like it and to gauge how much it helped the businesses on Witherspoon Street. Turns out, pretty much everybody loved the idea, and businesses did great. The parklet was full, day and night, during its entire run, from May to October. Overall, about 95 percent of the feedback we got from residents and visitors was very positive.
And the parklet did indeed help businesses near where it sat. Jessica Durrie, owner of Small World Coffee, said it wasn’t just business volume that increased, but the exposure to her café and to the neighboring businesses definitely increased because of the parklet.
The idea for the parklet came from Mayor Liz Lempert, who presented the idea to me (with great enthusiasm!). We then brought in the Arts Council of Princeton’s artistic director, Maria Evans, who researched further about what has proven to be successful and well-received in cities like San Francisco and Chicago.
With the encouragement of the mayor and council, and working with the municipal engineering staff, Maria assembled a team of skilled experts in their fields to tackle the project. The resulting handmade benches and inviting urban appeal of the parklet immediately won over visitors who enjoyed sharing time with their neighbors and friends.
Now, we know what you’re thinking: With parking in Downtown Princeton at a premium, how could anyone want to take up two spots for a parklet? We wondered about that too, but as it turns out, barely anyone worried about it. The few who did question the project expressed concerns that occupied parking spaces would translate into lost revenue from parking meters.
But we planned ahead. We placed signs encouraging visitors to contribute to the meters where the parklet was, well, parked, and many of those visitors found it a fair trade ‒‒ a couple quarters for a leisurely break on one of the most bustling spots in our beautiful downtown.
Also, merchants who will have the parklet set up in front of their businesses will pay for the privilege, and those proceeds will go to the city and to future parklet projects ‒‒ because we intend to do this every year.
We encourage local businesses to consider submitting a proposal for the chance to host the 2016 parklet. For information and application instructions, go online. All members of our business community (not just downtown, by the way, but anywhere within the Princeton municipality) are invited to submit proposals online.
The selected business or group of businesses working together will also have a say in what this year’s parklet will look like. It’s one of the many great things about the parklet project ‒‒ it can go anywhere and can always be updated to be whatever our host businesses and artistic teams think works best.
Like last year, we will have the parklet open through October, when most people visit Princeton. The seasonality helps make the parklet special, as does the fact that it will never be the same parklet in the same place twice.
For now, we’re only planning to open one parklet per year, but if interest from merchants is strong enough, we will certainly consider adding one or two more around town.
The Princeton Merchants Association, of course, is extremely enthusiastic about the parklet, as we are about any projects that beautify or enhance our favorite town’s appeal and lead to more business for our fellow merchants. The PMA has been instrumental in getting the word out about the parklet and its benefits to our members, and we fully support anything that attracts more people to Princeton.
So here’s hoping we see you this spring and summer in Princeton. And here’s hoping you get a seat at the parklet sometime in the coming months.
Jeff Nathanson is the executive director of the Arts Council of Princeton.
This column is content provided by the Princeton Merchants Association.