Blink while driving past Joe Bean coffee shop on University Avenue and you may miss the tapestry of wooden benches adorning the shoulder of the road ahead of the shop. You may confuse it for just more outdoor seating, or some sort of garden. It may seem like just another simple patio space with nothing else of note, but for the owner of the coffee shop and the designers of the open civic space known as a “parklet,” a three-year struggle and indicator of a new civic facet to the Rochester landscape gives meaning which has far more depth than just a place to take a seat.
Joe Bean owner Kathy Turiano, glancing out the window at the cleanly adorned plot of land periodically, speaks with fervor and exuberance. She hops from excitedly outlining the importance of the right grind and optimal heat for the perfect cup of coffee while outlining the sins of traditional coffee makers to discussing how this simple project can grow to create a better Rochester.
“Rochester is just not generally considered a walkable city,” Turiano said. “And the reason for that is simple; you need a place to walk to. If you have a place to go where you can just hang out, people will come. We’ve already seen it, we see people everyday coming by and hanging around.”
A parklet is essentially a small park made from using space that would otherwise sit vacant; in Joe Bean’s case, a defunct fire lane running along the face of the shop. Starting in San Francisco in 2010, the parklet concept quickly caught on with cities looking to better serve otherwise unused spaces. Parklets have since been implemented in Vancouver; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and now Rochester.
The process of getting the project off the ground, however, was a struggle, solely due to the alien nature of the project. Seth Eshelman of Staach Inc., the design firm behind the parklet, explained that such a foreign concept to zoning officials brought the project, first planned in 2014, to a crawl.
“There weren’t any hoops to jump through, we had to make the hoops,” Eshelman said. “It was just pushed around so many times because nobody knew what it was we were trying to do.”
Turiano further elaborated on just how alien the concept of a parklet was to the city at the time of their pitch.
“We had to fill out a permit when there were no permits for what we were doing,” Turiano said. “The permits department was great, but when we handed in a form with nothing checked off, they kept asking, ‘Are you sure this is correct?'”
For members of Rochester’s vibrant activist community, the parklet was not an entirely foreign idea. Rather, temporary events such as Park(ing) Day, celebrated internationally on the third Friday of September, utilized similar concepts to turn parking spaces into community hubs. Rochester celebrated Park(ing) Day on Sept. 16, 2016 with events from yoga to mini golf in a parking lot on Franklin Street.
“The idea is to take street parking spaces and turn them into usable public spaces,” said Carolyn Levine, an organizer of Rochester’s Park(ing) Day. “But we had this entire parking lot, so we decided to expand on the idea for the event.”
Benjamin Woelk of Slow Road Consulting, a key member of the parklet project, explained the significance of events like Park(ing) Day, and the critical of importance of having easily accessible civic spaces.
“These are events where people come, fill the meter up for the day and just hang out,” Woelk said. “In a way, it’s, for a day, taking back a part of the city that would otherwise only be used for parking to do something meaningful. These were temporary, pop-up parks, and the idea here was that we could do something that would start a movement across the city.”
Levine echoed this sentiment, explaining a belief that, in order for Rochester to develop organically, amenities like open community spaces and integrated bike lanes are critical.
“Creating these livable spaces is really important in creating vital, healthy neighborhoods,” Levine said. “It gives people an opportunity to stop and sit and chat with friends or grab a cup of coffee, just hang out and people watch.”
With the help of City Transportation Specialist Erik Frisch, who also brought the Zagster bike-share program to Rochester; Southeast Quadrant Neighborhood Administrator Nancy Johns-Price; and the crowdfunding site Kickstarter, the parklet concept slowly, but surely, became a reality.
“The people who donated on Kickstarter paid into a much larger concept,” Eshelman said. “That there was much more to come.”
Thanks to the persistence and dedication to a dream from the three minds behind the project, the Joe Bean Parklet was finally unveiled on Friday, Aug. 4. About a month after its opening, Eshelman, Turiano and Woelk all see a bright future for the growth of parklets across Rochester.
“The city has parklet documents now,” Woelk said. “I can’t say the city wasn’t an enormous help, but we raised the money ourselves, and it shows that this can be done.”
Gauging the impact of the parklet, Eshelman said he’s seen a stark change in the behavior of people driving on University Avenue.
“People are slowing down as they pass through, the traffic almost seems calmer,” Eshelman said. “I think this a key thing to have as this side of the city develops.”
Pointing to the communal aspect of the free open space, Woelk agreed that the parklet has brought with it a statement on what the formerly highly industrial southeast quadrant now is.
“It reminds people that this is a neighborhood, on a community scale,” Woelk said.
Turiano points to the parklet as a place to escape from routine and simply enjoy a moment of relaxation in day-to-day life.
“It’s a pause; it’s a place to just sit and take a breath,” Turiano said.
With the parklet project done and open to the public, the trio still dwell on moving forward, and pushing the project to become a staple across the city. Finishing a meeting on Thursday, Aug. 10, Woelk pointed to new attributes such as platforms or docks for food trucks to serve from, while, as a whole, the group spoke with excited assurance that the project would not stop at University Avenue.
“We figured that all three of us should talk now that it’s done,” Woelk said. “Because it’s not done; there is much more to come.”
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