Oct. 1 2014 01:27 PM

Tactical urbanism finally on the rise in historically slow San Diego

From left: Jorge Michios, Beryl Forman, Edward Haidar and Steve Aldana at the new parklet in University Heights
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

Beryl Forman and Steve Aldana of the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association are squeezed together in the shade of a small umbrella propped up over their table. A week ago, the outdoor patio they're enjoying was just another parking space; now it's San Diego's second-ever official "parklet." 

"It's done, but it definitely took longer than we expected," Aldana says, estimating that the project was in the works for more than a year.

"At least we now know the notarized letters the city accepts versus the ones they don't," Forman laughs. "There was a lot of back and forth like that with the city."

"I honestly thought I could get this done in three or four months," adds Jorge Michios—a recent architecture-school graduate who donated his services for the project—showing up at the parklet a few minutes later. "I just didn't know how slow the wheels of the machine actually turn."

San Diego's second-ever parklet
Photo by Carlos Solorio

Parklets are loosely defined as small, outdoor seating areas that often take over one or two existing parking spots, temporarily reclaiming the space for pedestrians and improving the aesthetics and streetscape of the urban environment. While San Francisco is now home to nearly 50 of them, San Diego is still in the nascent stages of its so-called "Temporary Pedestrian Plaza Pilot Program." Here, parklets are officially called "temporary pedestrian plazas" due to liability concerns.

San Diego has historically been reluctant to do these types of tactical-urbanism projects. Tactical urbanism refers to projects meant to be quick, easy, cheap, temporary and creative. While cities like San Francisco and Chicago were quick to catch on, San Diego has only recently seen a noticeable uptick in interest and enthusiasm from City Hall.

San Diego's newest parklet, costing $12,000, is a small seating area that meets the sidewalk in front of the Live Wire bar and Mama's Bakery & Lebanese Deli near the intersection of Alabama Street and El Cajon Boulevard in University Heights. A bike corral will soon go in at one end of the parklet, and bigger umbrellas and other amenities will be added, too.

The space is roughly 200 square feet, but Sam Chammas, who owns Live Wire with Joe Austin and leases Mama's to Edward Haidar, says it has huge potential for making a much broader impact. Chammas, Austin and Haidar helped the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association fund the parklet and the city required Chammas and Austin, as the property owners, to assume all liability and responsibility for its maintenance and repair. Chammas says it was well worth the risk.

"I showed the deal to my attorney, and he was, like, ‘You're nuts if you say yes to this,'" Chammas says. "But I really thought about it, and I go, ‘You know what, enough people say no in San Diego. There is so much positive if we say yes to this and not let this mini ounce of risk keep us from doing something really cool.'" 

Elizabeth Studebaker, who works as the mayor's advocate for business-improvement districts and is helping to shepherd the Temporary Pedestrian Plaza Pilot Program forward, says the city is streamlining and improving its process. Eventually, she says, it'll be much easier for private businesses or other entities to fund and create a public parklet—er, temporary pedestrian plaza.

Under the pilot program, the city wants to see three more projects built before it cements its policies and procedures. Officials want to collect more data and analyze what's working and what isn't. Studebaker says she's surprised it's taken so long for another parklet to pop up after the first one in North Park, which opened in front of Caffe Calabria on 30th Street in 2013, but she's happy to report that the city's been seeing a growing interest.

David Loewenstein in front of the future home of Quartyard
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

Another parklet in front of Super Cocina on University Avenue in City Heights is close to being permitted, and a handful of parklets are being planned for Little Italy. Studebaker says that while the structures can be cost-prohibitive for some small businesses—ranging from $10,000 to $100,000, with a city permit costing a flat rate of $1,200—a lot of folks see parklets' inherent economic value.

"They're good for business," Studebaker says. "Adding social-gathering areas, public plazas—those are proven to be a benefit for commercial areas."

As the city continues to get its parklet program off the ground, other tactical urbanism and creative place-making projects are beginning to pop up all over San Diego.

The most noticeable will soon replace the empty, city-owned plot of land Downtown at the corner of Park Boulevard and Market Street, which is being transformed into a temporary urban pop-up park complete with office space, a restaurant, café and bar, all housed in shipping containers. The park will also include a dog park, a beer garden and food-truck parking.

Dubbed the Quartyard, it's the first big project by new architecture and development firm Rad Lab, which raised $60,000 for the park in 30 days through Kickstarter and was able to round up another roughly $450,000 from investors.

David Loewenstein, who runs Rad Lab with fellow NewSchool of Architecture + Design graduate students, says that while they initially thought the project could be completed much cheaper and faster, the team quickly learned that working with the city takes time and finesse.

"To get the building department to understand that we wanted to put 15 shipping containers in the middle of Downtown and turn them into bars and offices and restaurants and things like that was a pretty big challenge," he says. "And to get the city to say, 'Hey, we do have this piece of land that we're not using; let's do something with it,' was also a challenge. But in the bigger scheme of things, it really only took us a year between the final plan and full build-out, so it's gone quite fast."

"San Diego has jumped leaps and bounds from what they have been known for and what they were able to do on this project," he added.

Downtown's Donut Bar celebrated Park(ing) Day on Sept. 19.
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

Downtown San Diego Partnership (DSDP), an influential nonprofit that advocates for businesses and residents in the city center, is a leader when it comes to tactical urbanism. Among other creative ventures, the group's been successful in getting businesses to celebrate Park(ing) Day, an annual event that asks folks to transform parking spots into a public park on the third Friday in September.

At the Park(ing) Day event a few weeks ago, DSDP unveiled a rough draft of its upcoming mobile parklet, which will move to locations throughout Downtown to help the organization determine the best locations for parklets. DSDP is working out permitting issues but says the city is warming up to tactical urbanism—City Council President Todd Gloria's office even funded the mobile parklet.

"They're getting to a place where they feel empowered to say yes," says DSDP spokesperson Jennifer Davies. "We call it 'pink tape' as opposed to red tape; obstacles and barriers are being cautiously removed."

*This article has been updated. 

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