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Parklets or Let’s Park?

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Positive Pie in Montpelier. Photo by C.B. Hall
Positive Pie in Montpelier. Photo by C.B. Hall.

By C.B. Hall.
State Street may soon be getting its second parklet. Across the street from the Rialto Bridge parklet, Positive Pie is seeking to expand its restaurant service to a parklet which, like the Rialto structure, will take up two parking spaces. That would give the restaurant and bar 18 to 20 more seats for patrons—but some local merchants say it would give them the blues, as more parking space disappears on the key thoroughfare.
Several layers of government must approve the initiative. The city, which has championed the parklet concept, owns the parking spaces, and is prepared to lease them for the equivalent of the yield from the spaces’ parking meters when in constant use—eight dollars per weekday per meter, which works out to roughly $350 a month for the two spaces.
The street is part of a highway, U.S. Route 2, that was built with federal funds, and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) must therefore approve all non-transportation uses of the thoroughfare. The feds approved the Rialto parklet, but as an extension of a public sidewalk, without a private, commercial component. In Positive Pie’s case, the context is private and commercial—a profit-making business seeking to use public property to serve food and alcohol right next to the traffic. All that might make the federal approval a sticky proposition.
The Legislature recently approved a change in the city’s charter so as to remove the necessity for the state’s approval of the Positive Pie parklet per se; however, the restaurant’s use of the parklet will require a modification of the establishment’s liquor license. At a July 9 meeting, the state’s Liquor Control Board concluded, according to the meeting’s minutes, that it was “not in favor of using parking spaces for outside consumption but would approve” the Positive Pie license modification contingent on other regulatory approval, meaning the FHWA.
Montpelier Alive, the city’s downtown development association, has facilitated the micro-park project on the city’s behalf. The Rialto parklet, built by students at Vermont Technical College, opened in early June. The city waived any lease charges for that project, since it was not attached to any business that would profit from it.
Parklets got their start with a 2005 prototype in San Francisco and have since spread to cities from Los Angeles to Montreal. The idea is to create small urban spaces that extend a sidewalk and thus provide green space or other desirable features for people using the street. In Montpelier, the problem is that those desirable features are not necessarily desirable to motorists looking for a parking space or to shopkeepers who want the parking spaces that the parklets supplant. Montpelier also faces the constraints of cold weather and snow-plowing, which means that all parklets needs to be dismantled by the end of October.
Local opinion on parklets is closely divided. In a Front Porch Forum discussion, positive comments on the Rialto parklet outnumbered negative posts by about a three-to-two margin. A impromptu survey conducted by The Bridge among businesses on State between Elm and Main found 10 owners or managers who opposed parklets on that block, and five (including Positive Pie) who favored them. Two shopkeepers expressed mixed feelings.
An online survey conducted by Montpelier Alive in late July got an energetic response to the question, “Do you think that Montpelier benefits from the current parklet in downtown?” Paul Carnahan, who chairs the Montpelier Alive Design Committee, reported that 54.7 percent of the 366 respondents answered yes and 45.3 percent said no. “Some [people] like the concept of the parklet but don’t like this particular [Rialto Bridge] concept, and there are people who don’t like the concept at all, primarily because it takes up parking spaces, it seems,” he said.
When asked about the prospect of Positive Pie’s serving liquor at its prospective parklet, he said, “We’re OK with that. We see any increase in business activity as good for everyone in the downtown.”
“The preference of the City Council was very strongly towards privately maintained parklets,” he added, drawing a contrast between the Rialto structure and Positive Pie’s proposal.
But parklets, privately maintained or not, leave several State Street business owners wagging their heads in dismay. Karen Williams-Fox, who owns Woodbury Mountain Toys, next door to Positive Pie, is one of them.
“I have so many customers that express their concern over parking in downtown Montpelier. I’ve had a few elderly people who have patronized me and who have called and said they’ll never come into Montpelier again because there’s no parking. It’s very difficult. We’ve been trying to work out a solution, and parklets—instead of helping, they’re just taking away.”
She said she had not been consulted about Positive Pie’s plans.
“Communication helps to alleviate concerns,” she noted.
Theo Kennedy, who owns Chill Vermont Gelato with his wife Nora, takes the opposite viewpoint. “Chill is excited to endorse any and all endeavors that will bring folks downtown and have them hang downtown. And I think we look at this on behalf of all businesses.”
Positive Pie owner Carlo Rovetto told The Bridge that promotional material from Montpelier Alive elicited his proposal. He did not consult with neighboring businesses, he said, because he was simply following the association’s guidance. “It was just a process of, fill out an application and get approved.”
Mayor John Hollar, who testified at the July 9 Liquor Control Board hearing on behalf of the proposal, told The Bridge that he doesn’t generally appear before the board about liquor licenses, he said, but he attended the July hearing because “this was a unique proposal, and the concerns of the Liquor Control Board related to issues under the control of the city.” He mentioned traffic, parking and the consumption of alcohol in public areas.
He declined to crystal-ball the initiative’s chances with the feds, but noted that “the consumption of liquor shouldn’t enter into the federal decision. The relevant standard under the federal rules, as I understand it, is whether the proposed use of the roadway is in the public interest. I would hope that the federal government would respect the city’s right to make that determination regarding a street in our downtown.”
City Manager Bill Fraser said that he had met with FHWA representatives about the new parklet in June, but that, while he offered to provide a letter formally seeking the federal imprimatur, the federal functionaries wanted to give the relevant issues some scrutiny before inviting a formal request. In May, he said, “they turned around the other approval [for the Rialto parklet] very quickly. In June they were really puzzled—‘How does this work with private use?’ The impression I got from them was, ‘We don’t want to stand in the way of what the locals want to do, but we also have federal regulations to sort through.’”
As he awaited the feds’ decision, Rovetto did not hesitate to express enthusiasm about the parklet idea. “It adds a particular vibe to a town,” he said. “It adds to the quaintness of the town. My personal opinion is, it’s a great move for the city.”
The City Council’s 2013 decision on the question made up to six downtown parking spaces available for the parklets. Beyond Rialto and Positive Pie, then, the city still has a couple of parking spaces up for grabs for another business owner who might profit from them—if the Positive Pie stalking horse, that is, meets no insurmountable obstacles.
“Some people have said that the parklet is a solution looking for a problem. I think that’s a basic misunderstanding of what Montpelier Alive is about … We want to give people a reason to visit the downtown.”