‘Cool, Fun and Beautiful’
Charleston is often compared to European cities, with its ocean breezes, historic buildings lining narrow streets and array of cuisines. One of the missing pieces has been space to enjoy dinner or drinks in the open air, but as the pandemic locked restaurant-goers out of restaurants and cafes, it created an opportunity for owners to expand beyond their walls.
By the end of last summer, thousands of small businesses across the country closed their doors for good, unable to sustain the lost revenue. Others held on, but were in danger of losing more ground, especially with indoor dining restrictions. In response, the City of Charleston loosened rules on outdoor dining and made room for new ideas.
The results came in the form of so-called parklets. Previously only aspirational experiments in “pop-up urbanism,” converting on-street parking areas into seating or social-distancing spaces found success in other cities. In states like Oregon and Utah, and cities like New Orleans and New York, streets became lined with outdoor restaurant space, allowing patrons extra room to sit, and giving pedestrians a bit more distance from traffic.
“During the pandemic, in desire to keep restaurants afloat and as an alternative to indoor eating, these proliferated around the country,” said City Councilman Ross Appel.
“It’s all so still active and evolving,” added Jordan Amaker, Lowcountry Local First’s director of marketing and communications. “It’s been a good lesson for cities on how to act quickly and nimbly, which is kind of rare.”
But during the pandemic, acting quickly and remaining flexible was the name of the game. City officials had already lifted some restrictions on outdoor business, opening of sidewalk and parking lot spaces for commercial use, but state Department of Transportation (DOT) restrictions made that difficult for some.
“There had been a number of people who would like to expand outside, but one of the challenges is different government entities owning different roads in the city,” City Councilman Mike Seekings said. “City streets we can handle, and we can work through them collectively and locally, but the county owns some roads, and the DOT owns others.”
The different parties butt heads more often than you’d think, Appel said.
“This dynamic pops up all the time,” he said. “Whether you’re trying to get a traffic signal changed or put in new equipment … the DOT says, ‘Maybe we will approve that, but you’ll have to pay for it and maintain it.’
“We get into this a lot of times when we want to do something cool and unique or out of the box, and it’s incredibly difficult to get it done. And once we do, we have to maintain it, even with very limited funds to do so — that money still goes to the DOT.”
But, the peninsula’s unique landscape and multitude of local businesses made it an ideal space to give it a shot, Seekings said. The hemorrhaging businesses made it a necessity.
“These new spaces, coupled with our lifting of restrictions on outdoor businesses in other ways, has really worked to help significantly ease the burdens on the restaurant industry,” Seekings said.
Babas on Cannon acted as the prototype parklet on the peninsula, and just in time, if you ask co-owner Edward Crouse. He found himself on a call with Seekings early in the city’s planning process toward the end of last summer.
“I told him it was a huge priority for us and that it would make a huge difference for us, for a place with only 20 seats inside,” Crouse said. “It would really mean the survival of my business and my livelihood.”
Seekings replied with a list of everything Crouse would need to expand his already budding outdoor seating area to the street with the city’s first experimental parklet.
“It was a pretty steep learning curve,” Crouse said. “It was so helpful for Mike to put together a list of people that I needed to get on board … It was an easier sell because of our style — it’s a little more elevated, a little more professional; we aren’t looking to have people drinking in the streets until 2 in the morning.”
Not only that, but the location, being near the corner with a stoplight at the end of Cannon Street, meant that traffic was already moving slow, reducing the risk for visitors. The parklet was fully operational by September.
“This just made such a big difference for us as a team because we could still provide warm hospitality,” Crouse said. “The guests can feel like we care, and even though we couldn’t take care of them the same way we could have before, it’s obvious we love what we do and are doing what we can to make this experience cool and fun and beautiful.”
Babas isn’t the only parklet on the peninsula — Cutty’s opened its own on Bogard Street a couple months later in November. Like Babas, the opening came just in time.
“In that moment, I was just looking to make it happen as quickly as possible, because Cutty’s just needed to survive the pandemic,” said co-owner Ben D’Allesandro.
It wasn’t an exceptionally popular space at first — patrons were nervous about drinking alcohol in the street, and the colder weather made it less enticing for patrons to sit outside.
“Cutty’s is, for the most part, a locals’ place,” D’Allesandro said. “At first, people were a little hesitant to be drinking their alcohol out there in the street, and I had to keep assuring them that everything was OK and we had been given permission for this.
“Now, everyone seems to really enjoy doing it,” he said. “When we were initially given the permit, it was the middle of winter, so the days you could actually sit outside were few. But now that the weather is perfect for outdoor dining, people really love sitting out there.”
A breath of fresh air
While parklets were popularized as a saving grace for small businesses during the pandemic, supporters are hoping to expand options for others even once things return to normal.
“It’s been proven that it can be done, and there’s been no real negative impact from it. It still allows for all mobility in getting around that public space. I think we should stick with it,” Amaker said. “Anything that removes red tape and eases the process for businesses to help themselves is a win, so this is a big win for us.”
Car and pedestrian traffic may be one of the main concerns with using street space for seating, but some transit advocates said the spaces bring multiple positive impacts.
“Simple, affordable, safe and accessible conversions of street and parking areas into enjoyable spaces for people should be encouraged on the peninsula,” said Charleston Moves executive director Katie Zimmerman. “Parklet conversion also changes the streetscape in ways that influence more of a village feel, encouraging people to move by foot or bike, or to have safer access to transit stops.
“Parklets help slow the street, and are ideal for a dense, walkable location like the peninsula where there is already no reason for motorists to speed,” Zimmerman said. “The pandemic taught us that a rebalancing of street usage is long overdue, and parklets are one way to get us there.”
And, there’s room to expand the program beyond the peninsula.
“I think it could work really anywhere,” Amaker said. “People naturally think of little alleyways and downtown streets, but it doesn’t have to be a parking space. It can be a parking lot, an adjacent abandoned lot — you can get really creative with it and make it work anywhere.”
But, there are a few hurdles remaining to get to that point.
“I think the peninsula is a natural place to do it for now,” Seekings said. “But, I am certainly open to doing it in other places in the city too.” But, Seekings noted areas outside the peninsula don’t struggle with the space constraints business owners see downtown and may have less of a need for parklets.
“I certainly think it’s something I like in the abstract,” Appel said. “Outdoor dining, especially this time of year, is very attractive, and it’s something we’d want to strive for. But, some neighborhoods will tell you that parking overflows into the residential areas, and that makes it difficult.”
But, those who have had a taste of parklets are ready for more. D’Allesandro said he has already been working with a team to design something more permanent, and Crouse said the whole experience has changed his understanding of the business’ relationship with the city.
“I constantly have customers asking me how long we’ll be able to keep it,” said Cutty’s general manager Sarah Griffith. “Even as we begin to approach some semblance of normalcy, we would absolutely jump at the opportunity to make the outdoor space a more permanent fixture.”