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Parklets a work in progress after underwhelming debut

Gioivanny Valencia checked out the Jamaica Plain public parklet at 351 Centre St. in Hyde Square.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Gioivanny Valencia checked out the Jamaica Plain public parklet at 351 Centre St. in Hyde Square.

The parklets were supposed to be a social hub, a nexus of activity, a tiny urban oasis where locals could gather to chat, read, sip coffee, tap away on their laptops, or simply enjoy being part of a metropolitan streetscape.

Instead, Boston’s two parklets — on-street parking spots that the city converted into mini-parks by adding benches and plants — landed with a thud.

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Since the city installed a parklet in Jamaica Plain at 351 Centre St. and another at 1528 Tremont St. in Mission Hill in early September, at the cost of between $15,000 to $25,000 each, observations from abutters, passersby, and Globe reporters suggest that they are hardly the happening spots in town.

“I don’t really see anyone sitting there,” said Nehemiah Palacios, who works at Rizzo’s Pizza, across the street from the Jamaica Plain parklet. “I think once I saw someone skateboarding on the bench.”

Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

The city is considering adding lights to its stylized parklets to make them more inviting.

Officials at the Boston Transportation Department said they do not know how many people made use of the parklets during their inaugural season, and instead offered this statement: “They have been used both as meeting spaces where people catch up with friends and co-workers, as well as a spot for people to sit and relax for a bit.”

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But when pressed for details, Vineet Gupta, the Transportation Department’s planning director, conceded that those observations were anecdotal and that officials had indeed noticed problems with the parklet in Jamaica Plain.

“There’s less usage than we anticipated,” Gupta said.

‘We’re learning and we’re going to make modifications if necessary.’

Vineet Gupta, Boston Transportation Dept. 
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So what went wrong?

At various times throughout the last two months, a Globe reporter staked out the parklets, soliciting the help of colleagues on their daily commutes. No one was ever spotted using either of the parklets, though occasionally, people paused as they walked past, giving quizzical looks or snapping photos with their phones.

The investigation wasn’t scientific, and a few residents maintained that they had occasionally seen a person sitting in the parklet in the morning, or a couple chatting at twilight.

Some nearby residents said they believe potential parklet-goers were deterred by the uncomfortable benches — the parklet in Jamaica Plain features curved, half-moon shaped seating — the parklets’ proximity to street traffic, or confusion about whether they were allowed to use them.

Transportation experts say the lackluster performance of the two parklets speaks to the challenges of innovation by city agencies. When public space projects aren’t a home run, they’re quickly maligned — and public scorn makes transportation officials wary of experimenting with new ideas in the future.

Brendan Crain, spokesman for the Project for Public Spaces, a New York-based nonprofit that promotes use of urban spaces to build community, said the mark of a good public space project is not whether it is immediately successful, but whether the project coordinators listen to residents on the best way to fix it.

“You have to be open to the fact that it might not work like you had hoped it was going to work,” Crain said. “The most important thing is that you have a dialogue and that you’re actively involving people who use these spaces, and learning from them.”

Gupta said he is confident the parklets will become more popular with time. In fact, the city plans to add a third parklet next year, in Allston.

“This is true for parklets, it’s true for bike lanes, it’s true for bus lanes — it’s true for any innovation in the transportation world,” Gupta said. “Initially, you don’t see the kind of use that one would hope, but things pick up.”

Gupta cited a handful of reasons that the parklets haven’t been as popular as hoped. For one, Tacos el Charro, a restaurant near the Jamaica Plain parklet, closed unexpectedly. Without a bustling business in close proximity, Gupta said, there was less of a reason for people to linger.

Both parklets are located near traditional parks, a fact that Gupta said doesn’t eliminate the parklets’ usefulness. The purpose of the parklets, he said, is to change the streetscape and boost local businesses, rather than to simply add greenery.

As the city readies next month to roll up the parklets for the season, officials are looking for ways to make them more popular when they reopen in the spring.

For example, Gupta said, transportation officials have realized that the parklets’ current seating is not adequate, nor particularly inviting, and he plans to increase the number of seats in the future. The city may also add lights to the parklets to make it safer and more inviting for those who want to use the parklets in the evening.

Next year, he said, there will be a more systematic process of collecting statistics on the usage of each parklet. Additionally, he said, surveys will help transportation officials determine how to adjust the parklets to be more inviting to residents.

“In many instances from around the country, it’s a little bit of a learning process, and each location is unique,” Gupta said. “We’re learning and we’re going to make modifications if necessary.”

In Lexington, home to what officials there say is the first semipermanent parklet in Massachusetts, parklet managers said some of the lessons learned from their minipark could apply to Boston.

Melisa J. Tintocalis, the town’s economic development director, said lush potted plants had helped the Massachusetts Avenue parklet feel more sheltered from the adjacent street. Additionally, she said, town officials realized that the parklet would only work if it was placed in close proximity to a thriving business.

“If it’s in isolation, outside a post office or in the back of a parking lot, you’re not going to get use out of it,” she said.

Tintocalis said she is proud that a phenomenon often associated with dense city centers is thriving in the suburbs. And that means it can thrive in Boston, too, she said.

“It’s like this urban flair in suburbia,” Tintocalis said. “People are able to democratically sit together and hang out without having to purchase anything or feel obliged to get a cup of coffee.”

Martine Powers can be reached at martine.powers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.
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