Back in October, Hattiesburg City Council members discussed the possibility of beautifying downtown with parklets, which are public seating platforms that convert curbside parking spaces into community spaces for pedestrians.
That concept was furthered on March 2 when the council voted to establish the city’s first parklets in front of two downtown restaurants: The Porter and Nellie’s Chicken & Daiquiris.
“People like eating outdoors, particularly in the time of COVID,” Mayor Toby Barker said. “The parklet concept has been around for several years, particularly in major downtowns, but it’s becoming more predominant, especially during COVID when we’re trying to get outside and get spread apart.
“It really does help our downtown businesses as they try to grow their business while also trying to keep people safe.”
Most parklets have a distinctive design that incorporates seating and greenery, accommodating unmet demand for public spaces in retail or commercial districts. As a public-private partnership between the city and each business, the cost of a parklet is determined by the design phase and the final constructed piece.
As there are still some measures to be sorted out – including ensuring that the parklets accommodate the Americans with Disabilities Act – work on the units is expected to begin in the next two or three months.
“Not only does the addition of outdoor dining opportunities contribute to the vibrancy of a community, but over the last year, additional outdoor dining has been a go-to solution for many restaurants working to keep patrons socially distanced,” said Andrew Ellard, director of the city’s Urban Development Department. “Because parklets are public spaces, they can also be enjoyed by pedestrians simply relaxing between stops at various other downtown shops.”
Parklets have been incorporated in other large cities, such as San Francisco, to great success. According to a Parklet Impact Study by the San Francisco Great Streets Project in 2011, “the presence (of parklets) has also been shown to increase foot traffic, and in some cases revenues, for adjacent businesses.”
“It’s kind of a widespread phenomenon – these parklet ideas, particularly in areas where you may have very rigid buildings and sidewalk structures, but you want to try and create more outdoor space for people to have their meal,” Barker said. “Jackson has some around the Capitol that are very popular, and … Mobile has them.
“Ultimately, they’ve been strong assets for communities, which is why you see them continuing to expand.”
Barker said more parklets may be possible in the future as businesses express their desire to incorporate them.
“I know that we have a real demand for outdoor seating right now,” he said. “You can look in the alley by the Saenger Theater near the Pocket Museum on a Saturday, and you can usually find 20 or 30 people there at one time.
“You look at places like The Porter, who have had to put tables on the limited sidewalk space that we have, which is why they want this parklet thing to work. You see the popularity of food trucks that are continuing to grow, and so the demand for outdoor seating – particularly in the spring and fall in our area – is there. We just have to be innovative in how we expand those spaces.”