SO Village installs ‘parklet’ in downtown

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SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Some South Orange residents may have noticed the new hangout spot on W. South Orange Avenue, where a wooden deck has been built containing tables and an area for shoppers to relax and meet their neighbors. This “parklet” was built as a collaboration between the village, the South Orange Village Center Alliance, the South Orange Environmental Commission, the South Orange Parking Authority and Chambers Design.

“Many of you are probably wondering what that thing is in front of Tito’s Burritos. It’s called a ‘parklet.’ ‘Sheena, what’s a parklet and why did you take away parking spaces!!!???’” Village President Sheena Collum posted on Facebook recently. “A parklet is an emerging trend in public space design that encourages towns and cities to rethink auto-oriented concrete spaces into public, passerby-friendly ‘hotspots.’ So yeah, we gave up a couple parking spots temporarily from carbon-producing automobiles — we’re promoting more sustainability in this town, remember? #ParisAgreement — and instead, created a new mini destination for all our residents, businesses and guests to use. This is called ‘tactical urbanism’ and is very popular in the planning field.”

The parklet’s creators urge residents and visitors to enjoy the space while they can, because it will not remain in place through the winter.

“The parklet will be up for a few months and then will go away only to come back next year when the weather gets warm again,” Neil Chambers, director of design at Chambers Design, told the News-Record in Aug. 14 email. “In that way, it’s more perennial than temporary … more like Liatris spicata or another native flower.”

According to village Administrator Barry Lewis Jr., the estimated cost for the project was approximately $5,000, though SOVCA Executive Director Bob Zuckerman put that figure closer to $7,000.

“During assembly, there were a total of three (parking) spaces out of service. As constructed, the parklet takes up two spaces,” Lewis said in an Aug. 14 email to the News-Record. “The parklet platforms can and will be disassembled and stored during the winter months to allow snow removal, etc. However, it was constructed to allow it to be reinstalled each spring, either in the same or a different location.”

Chambers said he began advocating for the addition of a parklet back in 2015, and began designing the parklet in 2016. While Chambers designed the parklet and sourced the materials, he stressed that the parklet’s creation was only possible thanks to the work of several people in South Orange.

“They are why it actually happened,” Chambers said. “Without them, my parklet idea wouldn’t have been more than a bunch of cool renderings and designs on paper.”

Chambers also helped get the word out about the imminent parklet, drawing in support and funds — especially from Tito’s Burritos in South Orange, which sits behind the parklet. As for the actual construction, Chambers built it alongside South Orange Trustee Walter Clarke, who said he helped steer the plan through various committees and bureaucracy.

“So I guess you could say my role was designer, builder, fundraiser, advocate and general cheerleader for the concept from beginning to end and beyond,” Chambers said.

Proponents of the parklet believe it will yield many benefits for South Orange.

“I hope it will increase the amount of pedestrian traffic in the area and general interest in the downtown business corridor. I also hope it will cause people to reconsider their public spaces,” Clarke said in an Aug. 14 email.

Chambers elaborated on that idea, breaking down the parklet’s benefits.

“First, there’s plenty of research to show that parklets increase visits to local businesses surrounding them,” Chambers said. “Nearly all retail and restaurant spots see a jump in revenue after a parklet is built close by. As businesses are challenged to compete with online shopping, parklets are a creative and fun way to get people into a downtown area and have them hang around. In a world that is almost always measured by how busy someone is, it’s good to have an excuse to just sit and daydream. Second, placemaking is really important for towns like South Orange. A parklet is a wonderful way to make great places.

“Third, I think the parklet will prove to be a welcomed addition to the urbanscape of South Orange,” he continued. “I wanted to create something that was both a visually appealing public amenity as well as a place for people to gather and enjoy the downtown.”

Zuckerman cited the tangible benefit that he hopes the parklet will have on downtown businesses.

“The parklet will benefit our downtown in that it is a great new public amenity of our downtown — even if it’s temporary — and there is a lot of research that shows that parklets generate revenue for the local businesses that are near parklets,” Zuckerman said in an Aug. 14 email. “The parklet provides a cool-looking public space for residents and visitors to gather on the west side of South Orange Avenue, which really doesn’t have any park space or public gathering space. Furthermore, we plan to encourage our local businesses to ‘program’ the parklet from time to time with interesting activities that the public may enjoy.”

For Chambers, the parklet is just one of many projects that make South Orange more sustainable and more beautiful.

“Change doesn’t have to be complicated,” Chambers said. “I hope to see more projects like the parklet all over South Orange — in the downtown and the non-business districts. At the heart of the parklet, the goal is to bring people together, offer solutions that are refreshing and innovative, as well as start a conversation about what we all want South Orange to be in the future.”

And, according to Clarke, if this parklet is a hit among villagers, other areas of South Orange might benefit from a parklet in the future.

“If this one proves to be successful there are many areas within the underutilized business avenues of South Orange which could use a boost of interest and pedestrian traffic,” Clarke said.

Zuckerman expects the parklet to return next year and is eager to discuss its merits and detractions with residents to ensure it is nothing but a delightful asset to the village.

“There are surely other areas of South Orange that could potentially benefit from having a parklet,” Zuckerman said. “Once the parklet is removed we will have a dialogue with our residents to see if they want us to bring it back next year — which I think they will — and where it should go next year.”

Photos Courtesy of Sheena Collum