Babas’ parklet space was the first of its kind on the peninsula, making it the prototype for future outdoor dining spaces | File photo by Ruta Smith | Credit: Ruta Smith

Statewide emergency measures gave way to innovative uses of parking spaces during the pandemic on downtown streets, but with the removal of those allowances, city leaders are looking for new opportunities to reclaim peninsula space from the state Department of Transportation (DOT). 

Under the state of emergency, state-owned roads were given some leeway for special uses during the pandemic. One such way Charleston restaurateurs took advantage of this was the conversion of on-street parking spaces for outdoor dining — parklets. The pop-up urbanist experiments had found successes in other cities before being brought into the peninsula outside Babas on Cannon and Cutty’s on Bogard Street, both of which were well-used and enjoyed while in operation.

Now, the two parklets are gone — a result of the end of some pandemic-era safety measures levied by the state — and since the spaces they once occupied are owned and operated by the DOT, the city’s hands are tied.

“The DOT has a set of guidelines and policies,” said Charleston City Councilman Mike Seekings, who is also the vice-chair of the city’s Department of Traffic and Transportation. “It’s a large governmental list of what is allowable on their roads and what isn’t. One that isn’t is for-profit enterprises, so that automatically dismisses parklets.”

But Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg and other local officials are looking to reclaim downtown streets and parcels for city use.

“We’ve asked for a report from Traffic and Transportation,” Seekings said. “What does it really mean for the city to take back a particular block or street? What does it cost in terms of maintenance? What is it actually costing us annually? My suspicion is that it’s a fairly small number.” 

But it isn’t just about cost. Vince Graham, a local developer whose work includes the new urbanist I’On community in Mount Pleasant, said it’s simply easier to maintain than change the way whole city blocks are kept. 

File photo Ruta Smith

“The status quo doesn’t like to be subverted and will use various tactics to maintain it,” Graham told the City Paper in an email. “Various forms of fear propagation are usually the main tactic. Get a small group organized to say things like, ‘We can’t relinquish a few sacred parking spaces because our business will die;’ ‘It’s unsafe! A truck will run into street diners;’ and ‘Undesirables will make noise;’ and the majority of elected officials, being fickle creatures of the moment, will fold like a house of cards.”

But Seekings said he is willing to do the work.

“I would be very much in favor of taking that one block on Cannon Street back,” he said. “If you look one block to the west, it’s city-owned, and the block where Babas is owned isn’t. It’s a checkerboard. It would be nice to have some consistency, especially in that corridor. It would give us some flexibility going forward to do other things like outdoor dining.”

And he isn’t alone on council either.

“While the overall relationship with the state DOT is a positive one, we do have some unique circumstances in Charleston where it does create some complications and challenges when it comes to making unilateral decisions about our streets and roadways,” Councilman Jason Sakran told the City Paper. “As far as the parklets are concerned, I was supportive from the onset and thought the two parklets we had in place were positive additions to our streetscape and were good for business. We should continue to explore additional outdoor dining concepts such as parklets.”

If the city is able to reclaim space from the DOT, the next step to permanent parklets on the peninsula would be consistency of regulation and design. 

“Under the emergency measures we allowed some pretty relaxed requirements,” said Robert Summerfield, Charleston’s director of planning, preservation and sustainability. “Where you see these existing as permanent programs in other communities, the parklet has more substance to it — often built on platforms making them even with the curbing or on a pallet concept so they can be moved from the parking spot if necessary.”

“We aren’t looking to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “The concept of parklets have been successful in many communities, so we will probably be doing some continuing research into that and adapting it to the Charleston aesthetic.”

Seekings said that this process, while already underway, has hit a few snags due to the pandemic. Committees are understaffed, and pressure to work on other projects and from other angles has kept other city officials distracted, he said. “But this needs to go to the top of the priority list because this is important.”

“As we maneuver through the process and through COVID, outdoor dining and parklets were two positive things we did as a city, and we need to build and capitalize on those and get to a point of permanency and predictability.”

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