DURANGO — From their office overlooking Durango’s main drag, marketer Maggie Kavan and architect Michael Carrier watched in the spring of 2020 as the pandemic closed businesses and emptied out downtown. And they saw how restaurants responded by erecting a hodgepodge of outdoor seating areas, some of which seemed unsafe or created a messy look.
It sparked the idea for a company, MODSTREET, that creates parklets, or modular outdoor seating areas, that are sturdy and easy to assemble.
Parklets have become ubiquitous as the pandemic pushed restaurants to serve patrons outdoors and cities rejiggered many streets and malls to be more pedestrian-friendly. But the company and other local officials see parklets as something that will outlast the coronavirus and play a starring role in reimagined downtown districts and revitalized Main Streets across Colorado and the U.S.
“Cities get stuck in a rut and the pandemic really forced them to think,” said Mike Powe, director of research at the nonprofit National Main Street Center, which helps revitalize commercial districts.
The staying power is already on display in Olde Town Arvada, which closed streets to traffic during the pandemic to give businesses more space to operate under public health orders that limited capacity and encouraged people to remain 6 feet apart. The closures were so well-received that the local government extended them and contracted with MODSTREET to add durable parklets to patios, said Joe Hengstler, executive director of the Olde Town Arvada Business Improvement District.
It added “vibrancy” to Arvada’s downtown — full of brick-paved sidewalks, historic storefronts and a “quaint feel,” Hengstler said.
“We see a lot of families coming down with kids on bikes and not having to worry about that traffic,” he said. “From a personal experience myself, I’m out walking and I see other people now walking out there that I’m like, ‘Oh I haven’t (run) into you forever. How’s it going?’ and then you strike up conversation, and it does create a greater sense of community.”
Colorado towns have partly paid for the parklets using a more than $30 million state program earmarked for revitalizing main streets during and after the pandemic. The program initially helped downtowns respond to decreased restaurant capacity and other social distancing requirements, which led to proposals for more parklets and fencing for street closures, said Colorado Department of Transportation spokesperson Presley Fowler. It evolved to include requests to winterize outdoor seating areas with heaters and make areas safer for and better-suited to bicyclists and pedestrians.
There are downsides to the parklets, which take up streets and parking spaces. Some are in busy intersections that are noisy or uncomfortable for diners to sit outdoors. In other cases, restaurant kitchens can’t keep up with the added capacity.
But Fowler said the parklets have proven popular and can be an alternative to a full street closure, by expanding the sidewalk for pedestrians and diners while keeping a roadway open to vehicles.
Lawmakers recently set aside money to continue the program, which Fowler said shows that “the revitalization of downtown is a priority of the state.”
Paul Chinowsky, director of the environmental design program at the University of Colorado, said parklets are in an “in-between stage” of moving from novelty to permanence, raising questions about if municipalities are building primarily for cyclists, pedestrians or drivers. Most urban areas in the West were built around cars and there generally isn’t enough public transit to shift away from that, he said.
The addition of parklets also raises questions about equity and if they benefit all residents or just business patrons.
“If somebody puts tables on a sidewalk, are they just extending their private space or are they taking public space away? Can they restrict the public from sitting at those tables?” said Chinowsky, who is also a civil, environmental, and architectural engineering professor.
Parklets, he said, “look very harmless, they look very cute, but they get at the heart of what a lot of our questions are about urban revitalization.”
Still, local officials say destination downtowns are key to maintaining a sense of community and place, especially in rural or growing areas. For some, the pandemic offered a trial run to test out parklets and other outdoor seating areas and pushed municipalities to experiment with outdoor seating in a way they might not have absent the potentially devastating repercussions for small businesses unable to host dine-in patrons.
In Berthoud, one of the smallest towns along the Interstate 25 corridor, residents want to preserve a cherished “small town feel” even as their community grows, town administrator Chris Kirk said. “We’ve believed for a long time that our small, quaint, historic downtown — that is pretty vibrant — is the best way to do that.”
After cordoning off parking spaces and erecting tables and chairs downtown last year, the town has planted parklets near a popular brewery and outside a coffee shop. Kirk frequently sees it filled up with people sitting, chatting, and eating pastries in the morning.
Alamosa recently purchased a half-dozen parklets — and is planning to get three more. Their look fits with an industrial feel downtown that is meant to pay homage to the town’s railroad and agricultural heritage, said Alamosa Development Services Director Rachel Baird.
The city is among many that saw its downtown wither in the wake of the Great Recession and it laid out a plan a few years ago to draw people back to the main commercial district and to make downtown a destination for residents and visitors on their way to the Great Sand Dunes, or other nearby attractions. Officials narrowed Alamosa’s Main Street from three lanes to two, added public art and perennials, and introduced an outdoor dining area — working around the downtown’s location along a highway where there is little ability to control traffic.
“We do get comments from people — just recently, someone who lives in New Mexico mentioned that it’s so cool to see Alamosa do something different that’s unique and exciting instead of just being a county drive-thru,” said Deacon Aspinwall, planning and development specialist in Alamosa’s public works department.
“Coming out of this downtown plan, the pandemic was kind of a blessing in disguise, in some ways, because it gives us the impetus” — and a sense of urgency — “to really start aggressively trying to achieve that downtown plan,” he said.
Hanna Love, a research associate at the left-leaning Brookings Institution, who researched with Powe how downtown revitalization can strengthen rural areas during the pandemic, said downtown revitalization can be a source of pride and an energizing force in rural areas seeing younger generations move away.
“It’s really important — especially for a lot of these rural areas that have seen so much disinvestment — to see positive things happening downtown and feel like they are a part of it and that they can benefit and take part in their town’s revitalization,” Love said.