Pandemic parklets could be here to stay

DURANGO – From their office overlooking the main street of Durango, shopkeeper Maggie Kavan and architect Michael Carrier observed in the spring of 2020 the pandemic closing businesses and emptying the city center. And they saw how restaurants responded by erecting a mishmash of outdoor seating areas, some of which looked unsafe or created a messy look.

This sparked the idea of ​​a company, MODSTREET, that creates modular, sturdy and easy to assemble parklets, or outdoor rest areas.

Parklets have become ubiquitous as the pandemic has pushed restaurants to serve customers outdoors and cities revamped many streets and malls to be more pedestrian-friendly. But the company and other local officials see parklets as something that will survive the coronavirus and play a starring role in redesigned downtown neighborhoods and revitalized main streets in Colorado and the United States.

“Cities are stuck in a rut and the pandemic has really made them think,” said Mike Powe, research director at the nonprofit National Main Street Center, which helps revitalize shopping districts.

The remaining power is already on display in the old town of Arvada, which closed the streets to traffic during the pandemic to give businesses more room to operate under public health orders that limited capacity and encouraged people to stay 6 feet away ‘from each other. The closures were so well received that the local government extended them and contracted with MODSTREET to add sustainable parklets to patios, said Joe Hengstler, executive director of the Olde Town Arvada Business Improvement District.

Seasons of Durango on historic Main Ave. offers al fresco dining on their terrace terrace. (Jeremy Wade Shockley, Colorado Sun Special)

It added “some excitement” to downtown Arvada – full of brick paved sidewalks, historic storefronts and a “quaint vibe,” Hengstler said.

“We see a lot of families going down with children on bikes and not having to worry about this traffic,” he said. “From personal experience, I’m walking and I see other people walking now and I’m like, ‘Oh, I haven’t (run) you in forever. How are you?’ and then you strike up a conversation, and that creates a greater sense of community.

Colorado cities have partially paid for the parklets with a state program of more than $ 30 million to revitalize main streets during and after the pandemic. The program initially helped city centers respond to dwindling restaurant capacity and other social distancing requirements, which led to proposals for more parks and fences for street closures, a Colorado Department of Transportation spokesman Presley Fowler said. It has evolved to include requests for wintering outdoor seating areas with heaters and to make the areas safer and better suited for cyclists and pedestrians.

There are drawbacks to parklets, which take up streets and parking spaces. Some are in busy intersections that are noisy or uncomfortable for diners to sit outside. In other cases, restaurant kitchens cannot cope with the additional capacity.

But Fowler said parklets have proven to be popular and can be an alternative to completely closing the street, widening the sidewalk for pedestrians and diners while keeping a roadway open to vehicles.

Lawmakers recently set aside money to continue the program, which Fowler said shows “downtown revitalization is a state priority.”

Paul Chinowsky, director of the University of Colorado’s environmental design program, said parklets are in an “intermediate stage” in moving from novelty to permanence, raising the question of whether municipalities build primarily for cyclists. , pedestrians or drivers. Most urban areas in the West have been built around cars and there is usually not enough public transport to get away from it, he said.

The addition of parklets also raises questions about fairness and whether they benefit all residents or only business customers.

“If someone puts tables on a sidewalk, is they just expanding their private space or removing the public space? Can they prevent the public from sitting at these tables? Said Chinowsky, who is also a professor of civil, environmental and architectural engineering.

Parklets, he said, “look very harmless, they look very cute, but they are at the heart of a lot of our questions about urban revitalization.”

Yet local officials say destination city centers are essential to maintaining a sense of community and place, especially in rural or growing areas. For some, the pandemic offered a trial run to test parklets and other outdoor rest areas and prompted municipalities to experiment with outdoor seating in ways they might not have had without them. potentially devastating repercussions for small businesses unable to accommodate restaurant customers.

In Berthoud, one of the smaller towns along the Interstate 25 corridor, residents want to preserve a cherished “small town atmosphere” even as their community grows, city administrator Chris said. Kirk. “We have long believed that our quaint little historic town center – which is quite bustling – is the best way to do this. ”

Seasons of Durango on historic Main Ave. offers al fresco dining on their terrace terrace. (Jeremy Wade Shockley, Colorado Sun Special)

After sealing off parking spaces and erecting tables and chairs downtown last year, the city planted parklets near a popular brewery and outside a cafe. Kirk often sees it filled with people sitting, chatting, and eating pastries in the morning.

Alamosa recently purchased half a dozen parklets and plans to purchase three more. Their look matches an industrial downtown feel that aims to pay homage to the city’s railway and agricultural heritage, said Rachel Baird, director of development services at Alamosa.

The city is one of many cities that saw its downtown wither in the wake of the Great Recession and a few years ago it drew up a plan to bring people back to the main shopping district and make the downtown area a destination for residents and visitors en route to the large sand dunes or other nearby attractions. Officials reduced the main street of Alamosa from three way two, added public art and perennials, and introduced an outdoor dining area – working around the downtown location along a freeway where there is little ability to control traffic.

“We’re getting feedback from people – just recently someone who lives in New Mexico mentioned that it was so cool to see Alamosa do something different, unique and exciting instead of just being a drive-thru. county, ”said Deacon Aspinwall, Planning and Development. specialist of the public works department of Alamosa.

“Coming out of that downtown plan, the pandemic was kind of a blessing in disguise, in some ways, because it gives us the impetus” – and a sense of urgency – “to really start trying to aggressively try to carry out this downtown plan, ”he said. noted.

Hanna Love, a left-wing Brookings Institution associate researcher, who research with Powe how downtown revitalization can strengthen rural areas during the pandemic, said downtown revitalization can be a source of pride and an energizing force in rural areas as they see younger generations moving away.

“It’s really important – especially for a lot of these rural areas that have seen so much divestment – to see positive things happening downtown and to feel that they are a part of it and that they can benefit and participate in the revitalizing their city, ”said Love mentioned.

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