When is a parking space not a parking space? When it's a park, of course. Last week, Southern California's first “parklet” opened quietly in Long Beach, recasting that space between the painted lines as — yes — a tiny rectangle of curb-adjacent public space.

It's not as suicidal as it sounds. In San Francisco, there are now 23 such parklets; the Chronicle's architectural critic John King recently reviewed 22 of them.

These are the spawn of Park(ing) Day, an initiative that since 2005 has led groups all over the world to convert metered parking spaces into public space for a day in September. In San Francisco it was deemed a winning concept year-round, and in 2010 the city opened its first semipermanent park-where-cars-used-to-park.

This concept has since rippled across the country, but Long Beach's new parklet is the first in Southern California, claims its designer, Studio One Eleven's Michael Bohn. “Someone tried to take credit in San Diego, but it's a curb extension,” he says.

Credit: Studio One Eleven

Credit: Studio One Eleven

To create the parklet, a wooden surface is built flush to the sidewalk, using a decking system that doesn't require extra labor to level out the ground — the same system used in many of San Francisco's parklets. Using railings and planters, Bohn's team made the space into what he calls an “outdoor room.” In this first parklet, which is stationed in the Retro Row neighborhood, directly outside the Mexican restaurant Lola's, planters are ochre and yellow to echo the restaurant's color palette, and filled with genre-appropriate plants like agave. Tables, chairs and umbrellas congregate in the 30-foot-by-7-foot space, which last week was filled with chatty Lola's diners.

How, then, can this truly be a park? The tables obviously are reserved for customers, who on a sunny Tuesday afternoon seemed to be enjoying themselves even without margaritas (an alcohol permit is pending). The short answer is, it's not a park. In addition to the modified liquor license and additional insurance required for the new space, Lola's owner, Luis Navarro, paid for the parklet: approximately $20,000 plus the cost of those chairs and tables. It's fantastic visibility for his restaurant and a great investment to expand his business, but shouldn't it be called what it is: a private patio … in the street?

Aside from the self-leveling wooden deck system, which distinguishes parklets from other patios, there's something to be said for thinking of the parklet as a landmark for change. Long Beach, which proudly bills itself as the “Most Bike-Friendly City in America,” has invested in separated bike lanes and bike corrals (multi-bike racks) to make the streets feel more welcoming to both bikers and pedestrians. Retro Row's main strip, though bustling, was still missing that progressive, active vibe. Just these few dozen people having lunch outside dramatically transforms the energy of the street.

(Those who may be concerned about eating their enchiladas inches from a speeding Escalade should not worry; the planters make a solid buffer against traffic. And to those driving the Escalades, no parking stalls were “lost.” Instead the city restriped the street, reclaiming the space in outdated loading zones.)

Credit: Studio One Eleven

Credit: Studio One Eleven

Two more Long Beach parklets will be opening in the next few months — one at a coffee shop, one at a Vietnamese restaurant — and both will be privately funded as well. But Bohn is thinking beyond private uses, hoping the city can use these flexible, temporary kits across the streetscape.

“It's a tool to improve quality of life, just like planting trees,” he says. His dream is a parklet that would have bike parking along with true public seating.

That public/private negotiation will help determine if these parklets become as ubiquitous as the cars they're replacing. In San Francisco, a city program named Pavement to Parks helps with some permits and funding. In Los Angeles, four parklets are in the planning stages for Spring Street downtown thanks to the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, but it has yet to raise enough money to fund them.

So maybe we start with the private. Even if they are just for restaurants, these tiny outposts floating on our seas of asphalt would lure more people onto L.A.'s notoriously naked sidewalks. Plus they could help ease L.A.'s truly inexcusable lack of outdoor dining options. It would pull some life, some greenery, some color onto L.A.'s horrifically wide streets.

But until I can relax there without running a tab, let's just call them what they are. Might I suggest “patiolets”?

The parklet is located outside Lola's at 2040 East 4th Street, Long Beach

Alissa Walker blogs at Gelatobaby.com. Follow her on Twitter at @gelatobaby and for more arts news follow @LAWeeklyArts.

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