The street seats grew out of a national movement that began in San Francisco in 2005 when members of an arts collective called Rebar transformed a parking spot with grass turf, a bench and potted tree, and invited passers-by to feed the meter. The experiment inspired a daylong celebration, known as Park(ing) Day, in which people took over parking spots. Later, a new generation of curbside micro parks, or “parklets,” was born.
“The miniboom in parklets nationwide underscores how cities are reinventing how they use their most abundant public space — their streets,” said Alex Engel, a spokesman for The National Association of City Transportation Officials, which has included parklets in its guide to urban street design.
New York’s version of the parklet is the result of a partnership between the city’s Transportation Department and local groups, including real estate developers, property owners and small businesses, including coffee shops and pizzerias. These groups pay for the street seats, which typically cost between $10,000 and $20,000 each, with the city often reimbursing at least some of the cost, and are responsible for maintaining them.
While each street seat typically takes up two parking spots, the benefits of serving hundreds of people a day — versus a handful of cars — have outweighed any concerns over lost parking, said Shari Gold, a senior manager in the transportation department’s public space program. She added the department approves a street seat only with the agreement of the local community board, and nearby businesses and property owners.
Manuel Villalobos, 56, a furrier whose van was recently parked next to the street seat in the garment district, said that he did not mind because it only took away a spot or two. “It’s actually nice, you see more green,” he said. “Sometimes you have to give a little to get a little.”
The street seat on West 37th Street, near Eighth Avenue, is one of two that were inserted into parking lanes in the neighborhood; the other is on West 35th Street. Two others were placed on a stretch of Broadway that is already closed to vehicle traffic for the summer. All four were paid for by the Garment District Alliance, which operates a business improvement district in the neighborhood; the cost for the four was $48,000.
The street seats are made up of Tetris-like modular triangular pieces that allow for a custom fit at each site, and that can be moved and stored. The flexible system was designed and built by Parkways, a company that grew out of infrastructure research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and that has built parklets in Cambridge, M.I.T’s hometown.