Solano Avenue business owners have long lamented the decline in foot traffic at the top of their street. They hope a new parklet, set to open in time for summer dining and unwinding, will help restore some of the liveliness lost in recent years.
The Solano parklet, the city’s fourth, is under construction in front of Zachary’s Chicago Pizza and Pegasus Books. Parklets are privately constructed but open to the public, and this one promises seating for about 25 people at a time. Wooden tables and benches will occupy two former parking spaces, which were replaced elsewhere on the avenue.
“I felt that we needed to rejuvenate Solano Avenue for a long time,” said Kevin Suto, the president of Zachary’s.
After the demise of the Oaks Theatre in 2010, the shift in the mood in the neighborhood was palpable, and pedestrian activity dropped immediately, said Amy Thomas, the owner of Pegasus bookstore. Then in 2014, the popular La Farine bakery closed abruptly as well, and with it went one of the few outdoor seating spots in the area, she said.
When the city of Berkeley introduced its parklet pilot program in 2013, the two Solano veterans and their colleagues on the Solano Business Improvement District board toyed around with the idea of building a parklet together. Their project took off in earnest after the city helped secure a grant from the UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Community Partnership Fund. The $10,000 grant paired the Solano group with UC Berkeley urban-planning students, who studied the project’s feasibility and its impact on traffic and business.
From there, Berkeley-based Studio Bergtraun took over the design of the parklet. Architect Alex Bergtraun happens to moonlight as the assistant scout master for a local Boy Scout troop, so he recruited the kids to help with the construction work. Berkeley High School junior Emmet Hegarty, 16, took the parklet on as his Eagle Scout service project, overseeing the young construction crew (see video above).
“When I was a kid I didn’t get a chance to build with my hands. It teaches them skills like problem solving,” Bergtraun said. The crew used “hardcore materials” — mainly ipe wood, which can withstand bad weather — so it was no easy feat for the Boy Scouts to build the parklet pieces. The site is angled and the street is sloped, which posed some design challenges as well.
The Solano project was put together on a tighter budget than previous parklets. In addition to the UC Berkeley grant, Zachary’s contributed $15,000. Pegasus provided some funding too, and donated space in the bookstore’s West Berkeley warehouse so the Boy Scouts could set up a woodshop. (The kids were compensated for their labor in pizza.) Last year, then-Mayor Tom Bates gave $1,000 and Councilmembers Laurie Capitelli and Susan Wengraf gave $2,000 and $250 respectively from their discretionary funds.
Once the parklet is open, Zachary’s and Pegasus will share maintenance duties.
This past weekend, the Boy Scouts installed their pre-fabricated pieces at the Solano site, and will return over the next few weeks to complete construction. Flowerland Nursery, down the street in Albany, will do the landscaping.
Of course, the youthful construction workers have things like homework and sports practice that have occasionally taken priority over drilling and hammering, so the timeline is not set in stone. The rainy winter also stalled construction more than once.
“We’ve had to do a little dance,” Thomas said. “But this is the most good-natured project I’ve ever been a part of.”
When the city launched its parklet program in 2013, the goal was to sign off on 10 parklets over the next three years. But only three were built during that period, so the pilot was extended and the city is currently working on establishing a permanent program.
Funding parklet construction has proven challenging for many applicants, and projects that replace parking in busy commercial districts are met with resistance. The Solano partners have attempted to ward off controversy by replacing the lost parking spots with two new spaces, which opened on Solano just east of The Alameda in April.
The existing three Berkeley parklets opened in front of the Cheese Board Collective in 2014, in front of Saul’s Deli in 2015 and in front of several businesses on Oxford Street in 2016. Parklets became popular in San Francisco a few years ago and there are several in Oakland. And the concept is gaining traction. Just this week Albany approved its first parklet, to be located in place of a bus stop in front of As You Wish Frozen Yogurt and Hal’s Office Coffee, also on Solano Avenue.
Parklets are public spaces, meaning Zachary’s will not be able to serve food at the new Solano site. But that will likely not prevent people from ordering deep dish pies to go, for picnics outside.
What kind of scene does Thomas expect to find outside her shop once the parklet is in full swing?
A crowd of people eating, relaxing, “and obviously I would say reading,” she said.