Pedestrian Chronicles: Where's the Ping Pong Zone?

Don't let the exciting micro-park movement turn into a series of de facto coffee shops.

By Josh Feit April 11, 2014

The Pedestrian Chronicles is a big fan of the city's "parklets" or "microparks" program, but I'm disappointed in the uniform direction it's taking.

Quick background: Picking up on agitprop urbanist activists who were converting parking spaces into mini-parks by setting up mock beaches, putt-putt golf greens, reading tables, music stages, painting easels, or any equally pedestrian-friendly re-appropriation of the space, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has co-opted the idea (in a great way) and has steadily been sanctioning official micro-parks around the city.

Currently there are three microparks in play—one outside Montana Bar on Olive Way on Capitol Hill, one in the ID between Weller and King on 6th, and one on 2nd and Battery in Belltown.

They're not street-fair-style or Dadaist like the goofy ideas above; instead, they feature practical elements like planter boxes, seating, and game boards. That's cool for now. And in January, SDOT issued a call for applications to site five more parklets. Anyone can apply. There's a $1,000 license fee, a $140 annual license renewal fee, and the host is responsible for maintenance. The city estimates that it also costs parklet operators about $15,000 to design, permit, and construct a parklet.

SDOT ended up approving 10 applications (instead of just five) out of the 14 they received. And they're currently working with three of the applicants who were initially turned down to see if they can greenlight them.

I don't know what four proposals got turned down initially—I've got a records request in for that information—but there is a common denominator in most of the ones that were approved: Eight are specifically tied to businesses, such as the Hi-Spot Café in Madrona, SIFF Cinema in Lower Queen Anne, Delancey pizza in Ballard, and the (re-opened) Comet on Capitol Hill.

We've reached out to the winning applicants to get a sense of their designs. Molly Moon's is taking up two parking spaces on 45th outside of its Wallingford shop with a parklet that will feature a tree, a bench, and diagonal stoop with a synthetic grass hill ("Can you just imagine a three-year-old rolling down that hill?!" owner Molly Neitzel emailed us enthusiastically about their design); the Hi-Spot tells us to expect "tiered seating," bike storage, and water dishes for dogs in their "stoop culture" design; and the parklet adjacent from what will be a new Elysian pub on 2nd Ave. downtown hopes to have street musicians extending the nearby culture of Pike Place Market.

Fun stuff, for sure.

Where are the plans for a ping pong zone, a computer lab, an art gallery, a break-dance stage, a video arcade, a photo booth, a clothing exchange, a mini-farmer's market, a calisthenics court, or a rotating pop-up shop for indie businesses?

But we've had trouble getting much from the other winners—"we're still developing the idea," folks at the Comet said; "we're running a community design process to guide what features will be included," SIFF told us; "our contact is still away, so we're going to pass on [discussing the details] for now," Seattle Children's Research Institute in Denny Triangle told us.

It's a little weird that some of the winning designs are this uniform and/or inchoate; we were under the impression from the application—requiring two letters of community support, a written "description of your parklet to help the reviewers understand what you’re planning for the space," and "a site plan ... a hand drawing or computer graphic that shows the area around the parklet, the proposed layout (e.g., dimensions) of the parklet, and where parklet amenities (e.g., seating) would be placed"—that SDOT was looking for specific, original ideas rather than basic variations on outdoor seating for the business applicants or simply vague ideas about hanging out. 

Jennifer Wieland, SDOT's parklet manager, dispelled my cynical theory that businesses were simply using the program as a workaround for an outdoor seating license, saying: "There's no table service allowed in parklets. If a restaurant has take-out food, people can sit in a parklet and eat it, but wait staff can't come out and take your order and/or bring your food to you. So it's different than a sidewalk cafe." She also said the license fee for a parklet and outdoor seating "are quite similar, actually." 

Okay, but where are the plans for a ping-pong zone, a computer lab, an art gallery, a break-dance stage, a video arcade, a mini-library, a bocce court, a photo booth, a community fire pit, a clothing exchange, a mini-farmer's market, a calisthenics court (the idea I was going to pitch before I was intimidated by what looked like a daunting application process), or a rotating pop-up shop for indie businesses? In short, activating the streets should be tied to tapping the creativity of the public, not simply extending cafés.

This isn't a rap on the businesses that applied. (I'll gleefully eat a Molly Moon's cone on a synthetic grassy slope where a car used to be parked. And here's hoping the SIFF parklet features a film projection wall for coming attractions).

Nor is it a rap on the city. It's great that SDOT is sacrificing a few parking spots to encourage pedestrian culture. 

It's a call to all you ped advocates out there. Don't let the beta-phase of micro park movement establish a series of de facto coffee shops. Yawn.

Yes, the cost disadvantages average pedestrian applicants and favors business applicants (who are certainly psyched about getting public right-of-way for a mere  $15,000 investment in extra seating and foot traffic). But come on peds, get your Kickstarter going and kickstart this program. 


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