If you felt like Downtown needed more nature to counteract its vast plains of concrete, consider your pleads heard -- somewhat.
Earlier this month, the City of Los Angeles and Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council (DLANC) unveiled two parklets on Spring Street between 6th and 7th Streets -- in front of L.A. Cafe and Syrup Desserts -- to encourage residents to walk and bike more often. By definition, a parklet uses the space normally given to a parking spot and turns it into a mini-park.
Last year, a similar parklet sprung up in Long Beach as part of the project Park(ing) Day. The original inspiration for parklets came from San Francisco's "Pavement to Parks" program, and besides giving a different look to public space, the parklets serve as experiments in a larger project. For 14 months, the Spring Street Parklet Impact Study brings together USC's School of Architecture, the DLANC and the Lewis Center at UCLA to analyze the effects of the parklets in the city.
Scientific research aside, we decided to see what it felt like to actually hang out at one of these spaces. The parklet in front of Syrup feels the closest to a park (the other one has a foosball table) yet on an early-ish Friday morning not a soul occupied its space. Which meant we got plenty of free reign to explore. Below are a few features of the parklet we liked and didn't dig so much.
The bar stools at the counter are a perk. The businesses on Spring get pretty popular at certain times in the day so the chances of finding somewhere to sit with your delicious grub are slim. With the parklet right outside Syrup, you get at least ten or so more tries. That makes the parklet feel a little more like helping out a business than creating better public space, but at least it helps the traffic inside these eateries.
The Chart on Biking and Calories
If you decide to hop onto one of the exercise bikes, a chart right in front of you reminds you of the reasons you should jump onto a real one. Besides the obvious bonuses -- "AND biking is totally free! No paying for gas or parking" -- the "Beyond Downtown L.A. By Bike" plaque notes that instead of driving less than three miles somewhere, you could get there in fifteen minutes by bike. That trip would burn 140 calories if you weigh around 150 pounds and longer trips to locations on the circular map burn even more. It's helpful if you happen to get to the parklet before sundown and decide you want to bike to Huntington Park, a chance to burn an impressive 420 calories.
Swing-Like Chairs That Don't Really Swing
The one part of the parklet that automatically screams park ultimately feels like a let-down. Two yellow swing-looking seats beckon with their bright color, but unfortunately when you sit down they feel less stable than the tall bar stools nearby. Maybe swings need to be broken in? Normally when you grab one at the park you can't help but move, but these feel reluctant to even swing a few inches in either direction. Here's hoping more people nudge the little guys into more movement -- although that means more germs to share.
If you happen to drive by the area, you might not even spot the parklets because of the wood walls. The colorful designs on the side help catch your eye but the wood in the rest of the decor lends the space an almost trendy-restaurant feeling. A fair amount of potted plants surround you if you choose to sit at a stool or try out an exercise bike but the shining wood holding these make it almost seem as if you were sitting indoors with a few plants nearby. Parks usually create a fun, carefree atmosphere but the even the parklet's sign is framed by the wooden surface of the counter with bar stools. You could almost stick a chef behind that counter and call it the parklet cafe -- plenty of seats await you and if you feel bad about how many calories you ate, you can just work them off on the exercise bikes. Sounds like a fun idea for an outdoor, hipster eatery but not so much for a space that's supposed to transform a bit of the urban landscape into something more park-like.
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Where's the Parking for Real Bikes?
Since the parklet looks to lessen vehicle traffic and encouraged bike riding as an alternative, why not provide more parking for those bicyclists? Sure, the space includes its own exercise bikes but the real bikes getting citizens to the parklet need somewhere put their bikes, too. A nearby bike rack lets maybe two or three people lock up their bikes, but what about during the busier times of day? If bikers want to stop by the parklet it seems they might have to just rest their bike up against the side -- or keep on biking home.
It's nice to stop and smell the potted plants once in a while but overall this parklet does not measure up to the atmosphere and environment of a real park. You can only do so much with such a small space, but the space feels mostly like a neat spot to work out or sit for a few minutes. The counter, bar stools and swing-like chairs make for a cute arrangement but really just that. Rather than an oasis for nature-deprived Angelenos, the parklet serves as a reminder that nothing beats the real swings and fresh grass of an authentic park -- even if that means driving a few blocks more to swing by Syrup afterwards.