With parking spaces a precious commodity in Princeton, one might expect the temporary removal of two spots from a prime location on Witherspoon Street to inspire a certain amount of grumbling. But a rustic, Adirondack-style seating platform that has materialized in front of Small World Coffee seems to be doing just the opposite.
During Princeton University’s Reunions last weekend, alumni and locals found temporary respite from the heat and the crowds at this public “parklet.” They relaxed on the benches and sipped drinks under a row of hanging plants. Invited to feed the two parking meters to show support for future examples of this kind of public art, they dug into their pockets.
A joint effort of the municipality, the Arts Council of Princeton, local architect Kirsten Thoft, landscape artist Peter Soderman, George Akers of Material Design Build, and other volunteers, the parklet will be in place from two to four months. The project follows along the lines of other “street seats” in San Francisco, Vancouver, Seattle, and Philadelphia. The Witherspoon Street parklet is the first of its kind in Princeton, though a miniature version was briefly installed last summer.
While collaborators admit to some grousing from the public over the loss of two parking spaces, those complaints are in the minority so far. “I don’t have official numbers of the meter collection, but anecdotally I’ve checked every time I’m there, and the meter has always been full,” said Mayor Liz Lempert. “The response has been fantastic. The artists and architects who built it did a magical job. You can see people break into a smile when they see it.”
Maria Evans, artistic director of the Arts Council of Princeton, said she has heard “a little bit of complaining. Its people’s knee-jerk reaction, where they say ‘I can’t believe you took a parking space’ but then they say ‘But it’s really cool, I can live with that.’ From what’s been on Twitter and Facebook, the general public’s opinion is at least 95 percent positive.”
It was Ms. Lempert who suggested the idea for the parklet to Jeff Nathanson, executive director of the Arts Council. After being put on the back burner for a while, the concept was revisited when Ms. Evans invited Ms. Durrie and her husband, Mr. Akers, over for dinner one night. “I knew if I could get her support as a merchant that the Small World location would be great for the maiden voyage,” Ms. Evans recalled. “They were on board. He’s a master carpenter and terrific builder, and I knew he’d build a great structure. Then we talked to Peter Soderman, and he was completely in.”
Ms. Evans met with Princeton Planning Director Lee Solow, who helped coordinate the project. “He was terrific. He told me we needed an architect and that’s where Kirsten Thoft got involved. All of these people worked pro bono. The town paid for materials, but everything else was for free. Lots of favors were used up.”
By the time Ms. Thoft came on board, ideas for the design of the parklet were already in place. “They wanted something temporary, but that could be re-used,” she said. “My involvement was to make sure everyone was on the same page regarding safety, ADA compliance, and those kinds of concerns. So it was not about my personal vision. And these things are a large part of what an architect does, anyway.”
But Ms. Thoft likes the design, and compares the project to the pop-up beach that appears during summers along the Seine in Paris. “I think it’s part of a continuum of public park spaces,” she said. “It can be re-used and turned into something else, which was part of the intention. These things are becoming more popular.”
The parklet was built at the firehouse on Harrison Street. “After we had Kirsten’s drawings, we started parceling out the work,” said Ms. Evans. “The Public Works department made the platforms, and George built it at the firehouse a few weeks ahead. A colleague and I stained the whole thing. It was a coming together of everybody’s dedication to get the thing done in time for Reunions, which Jessica wanted.”
The project was installed last Saturday, and a formal dedication will take place tomorrow (Thursday) at 5 p.m.
Along with the benches and tree-trunk tables that are under an overhang, there is additional seating outside the overhang. Ferns in tree-trunk planters and succulents planted in chunks of logs are part of the verdant setting. Ms. Evans is adding pieces of art to the parklet. “I will invite artists who can do work that is visible from all sides and weatherproof,” she said. “It could really be a fun thing.”
Also planned is a system for parking bikes and a dog hitching post. As for the idea of asking the public to fund future public art projects by feeding the meters, that came from an unexpected source. “I teach art at Stuart Country Day School, and my students came up with the idea of not closing the meters,” Ms. Evans said. “So now, the sculptor Bob Evans is making a Venus flytrap shell to go on the meters, so people will have fun feeding them. It’s been incredible the way people are putting money in.”
Ms. Evans hopes future parklets will draw other artists, architects, and designers with new ideas. “Like Jazams — wouldn’t it be fun to make it an extension of the toy store?” she asked. “I think maybe with the merchants it will change from space to space. We need to go forward and figure out how to fund this thing in the future.”