LONG BEACH — One year ago, Luis Navarro took a risk when the owner and chef at Lola's Mexican Cuisine invested in a parklet that would be placed in front of his restaurant.
The parklet, which replaced a prime parking space with a patio with planters, tables and chairs, was lauded as a Southern California first, but also drew some skeptics.
"When it was first launched, people were pessimistic about it," Navarro said. "People didn't understand it. People told us, 'Who's ever going to sit out there?' People just bashed us about it, on how it was so dumb."
But as the weather got warmer and the restaurant was able to serve alcohol, people began to populate the parklet.
"We were jam-packed," he said. "It was the place to be."
Today, the parklet on Fourth Street's Retro Row has helped Navarro generate 25 percent more business, hire more servers and cooks, put his business on the map, and has him seriously thinking about expanding to a second location, he said.
"Definitely no regrets," Navarro said.
Parklets have been a growing trend, with spaces popping up in cities such as San Francisco, Boston and Chicago, and Long Beach has followed suit. Soon, Los Angeles will also jump on the bandwagon with four planned parklets.
Last January, Long Beach city officials embarked on the pilot parklet program with three restaurants: Lola's, Number Nine, a Vietnamese restaurant on Retro Row; and Berlin, a cafe in the East Village. Each business paid anywhere between $18,000 to $25,000 for the parklet, but it allowed them to add 18 to 20 more seats, enhancing seating by as much as one-third.
Berlin owner Kerstin Kansteiner said she has seen business improve by 30 percent.
"It's been great," she said. "On weekends, there's a waiting list to sit in the parklet."
Michael Bohn, design director and principal of Long Beach-based Studio One Eleven, which designed the three parklets, said he's been getting lots of interest from businesses and other cities thinking about installing parklets. He added that Studio One Eleven is designing parklets for two more restaurants in Long Beach and one in Carlsbad.
"It's a great feather for the city of Long Beach to have the foresight to work with the private sector to make this happen," he said.
While parklets have been seeing some success among businesses, it's still a young program, especially when it comes to planning and permitting.
Madeline Brozen, program director at Complete Streets Initiative at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, is involved with the City of Los Angeles and its pilot process to create four pilot parklets, including two on Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles.
"One of the main issues for cities, including Los Angeles, is that these are innovative projects for which a new model of agency structure doesn't exist," she said. "Many different agencies have different jurisdictions in the right of way, so identifying which agency will lead and which will support implementing parklets can be tricky."
For example, in Los Angeles, Brozen's group worked with the Department of Transportation, Department of Public Works, Street Services, City Planning and the City Council district.
"This multi-agency approach is not uncommon," she said. "But the agency coordination can be a challenge. Luckily, in each case, including LA, cities were able to work through this problem by designating a lead agency."
Long Beach's own process is "slowly evolving," said city Traffic Engineer David Roseman.
"There's been a lot of interest from businesses, business associations and outsiders, and over the last year we've learned quite a bit about the best way and place to put parklets," he said.
Some businesses may not be able to have a parklet because it may block manholes, utility lines, driveways and alleys, he said.
"It's making sure parklets don't compromise visibility," Roseman said. "Safety is our No. 1 priority."
Losing parking and sidewalk space has also been an issue, officials said. The Belmont Shore Parking and Business Advisory Commission in November voted against supporting parklets in the business district, citing those reasons after George's Greek Cafe inquired about putting a parklet in front of the Second Street business.
"Some people didn't like it," said Dede Rossi, executive director of the Belmont Shore Business Association. "It's a little more crowded here than Fourth Street. And parking's hard enough."
Bohn said he understands people's concerns about parking.
"Parking is a very touchy subject in Long Beach, and we made sure we found replacement parking," he said.
Long Beach's mobility adviser, Charlie Gandy, who makes parklets a big part of his bicycle tours with planners and architects, said parklets make economic sense and enhances the pedestrian experience.
"Outdoor dining and turning parking spaces into plazas make our neighborhoods more livable," Gandy said. "This is looking at the urban space in a smarter way."