The city of Tulsa could not have found a better person to kick off its new “parklet” program than Libby Billings.
When the City Council approved a self-certification program on Wednesday night to expedite applications, Billings was happily surprised and determined to get her parklet set up outside Elote Cafe, which she has owned for 12 years.
“I called my husband. It was like, ‘You think we can build a parklet overnight?’ He was like, ‘You’re crazy. Sure. Let’s try,’ Billings said. “And we rushed to the hardware store and bought everything and spent all night painting. I was up till 1 o’clock in the morning painting.”
By Friday afternoon, customers were dining in a 38-foot-long, 7-foot-deep parklet set up in the former parking spaces in front of her restaurant at 514 S. Boston Ave. The dining area was cordoned off with bright blue wood railings punctuated by the occasional large silver planter filled with native grasses, marigolds, and other plants.
“A parklet is taking over a city parking spot and turning it into a public place,” Billings said.“They can be used for dining; it can be a bookstore; it can be a plant nursery. Any kind of business can create one.”
The city has been working to implement a parklet program since it was recommended by city planning expert Jeff Speck in the Downtown Walkability Study he did for Tulsa in 2018. Speck is the author of “Walkable City.”
The onset of the coronavirus pandemic helped hasten the implementation as businesses looked to expand their footprints outdoors.
Billings figures she will be able to serve about 25 people in her parklet. That’s about the number of customers she could already seat at her patio and sidewalk tables.
“For us, it’s just beneficial because about 75% of our business now is going out our doors, whether it’s to-go or to the patio, so if we can have more patio, we can do more business safely,” Billings said.
Restaurants aren’t the only businesses that can apply for a parklet permit, and the businesses do not have to be downtown. But the parklets must be adjacent to their businesses, and they are allowed only on streets with speed limits of 25 mph or less.
The City Council on Wednesday also waived the permitting fees for temporary and permanent parklets and sidewalk cafes for the rest of the year. A temporary parklet permit is good for up to 120 days.
The annual permit fee for a permanent parklet is $1,375, which covers some of the city’s lost parking revenue and the cost of administering the program and inspecting the parklets.
The parklets themselves cannot extend any closer than 1 foot from the adjacent traffic lane and must be at least 2 feet from the closest parking spot.
“Some people are like, “One foot from a lane?,” Billings said. “But the speed limit down here is 25 mph, and there are stop lights, … and in my 12 years of working downtown, I have never seen a parked car get hit. So I think we’re going to be safe in our parklet.”
Maggie Hoey, assistant director of the Downtown Coordinating Council, said the program is intended to do more than help business owners like Billings expand their footprints.
“Not only does it allow her to expand her dining space in a safe environment outside, which is important; it also helps activate the public realm,” Hoey said.
Billings, who sits on the DCC board, is a big believer in the concept.
“Let’s say you’re staying at the Courtyard Marriot right there (across the street), and you walk outside your door and you say, ‘I’m hungry. Where should I go?’ Well, if you see this — patio chairs and lighting — you are going to be drawn to that,” Billings said.
“So we drag our tables and chairs onto the sidewalk year-round, even if it’s too cold, because people walking by go, ‘Oh, it’s a restaurant. There are tables and chairs outside.’ ”
And she expects that more and more businesses will soon be following her lead.
“I think that once mine is built, I can almost guarantee that maybe one or two more might pop up on my street when they see, ‘Oh, that wasn’t very hard. They built that in a day,’” Billings said.
The DCC is working on a grant program that would assist downtown businesses looking to expand their operations outdoors through the parklet and sidewalk cafe programs. The details of the program could be unveiled as early as next week.
For more information on the parklet program or to apply for a permit, call the Tulsa Planning Office at 918-584-7526 or go online to tulsaplanning.org.
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