Parking meter buys time for on-street art exhibit

What ever happened to sitting on the porch?

That’s what Maria Evans would like to know. She longs for that place where folks can kick back, sip something refreshing, connect with friends and neighbors to tell stories and maybe make a little music.

Evans, who is artistic director at the Art Council of Princeton, hopes Princeton’s new parklet, sited in from of Small World Coffee on Witherspoon Street, will become such a place. To emphasize the porch theme, she has created a silhouette of a rocker that hangs in a frame from the street side of the parklet.

Taking up two precious parking spots, the parklet is built on a platform that can be disassembled and stored when the weather grows cold. One end is enclosed in an open-air structure, and the other end, built on a sort of raised bed of crushed stone framed by logs, contains two carved “couches” made from felled elm trees. Succulents reach for the sun from hollowed-out sycamore logs. There are stumps that can be used as occasional tables or stools – and maybe stump speeches in fall. Benches made of cedar provide room for many.

So what about that lost parking revenue?

There’s a sign on the meter: “If you enjoy public art, fund the meters.”

And on a recent morning, public art supporters were doing just that. “The energy is contagious,” says Evans, who is thinking about building a Venus flytrap covering for the meter. Feed me, feed me!

Someone stops by. “Do the cops know about it?” he asks. “They say they love it but they don’t know what it is.”

“We need to get it on their radar,” says Evans.

That shouldn’t be a problem, since the parklet was conceived by Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert, after an experimental one-day popup parklet last summer. This year, the Arts Council and Small World were recruited as project partners. The township paid for the materials to build the structure, and Township Planner Lee Solow organized the public works department to create the platforms, in 8-foot sections that can be unbolted. The design, by architect Kirsten Thoft, was built by George Akers of Material Design + Build – his credits include Nomad Pizza and Small World Coffee.

Peter Soderman, one of the organizers behind Writers Block and Quark Park – two themed parks on Paul Robeson Place in the mid 2000s – coordinated architectural elements, including the elm wood couches designed and built over the Memorial Day weekend by Greg Napolitan of Frenchtown.

Funding for plants came from Stuart Country Day School, where Evans teaches a site-specific sculpture class and enlisted her students to help in building the project. “Everything was a labor of love,” says Evans, adding that Kopps Cycle will be installing a bike rack.

Budget? What budget — Evans says there is none. “We may start a Kickstarter campaign.”

Parklets, like bike lanes and farmers markets, are among the newest tools of urban planners to get people out on the streets. And while there may be lost revenue from parking meters, people lingering on streets will spend more money in local retail establishments, the thinking goes. The Princeton Merchants Association was notified of the project. Even in big cities like San Francisco, Seattle and Philadelphia, parklets are usually made up of two parking spots.

“This one is a prototype,” says Evans. “We’ll see what works, and if it’s well received we hope to have two or three throughout the community. We hope artists will want to exhibit here, and they may even design their own parklets.”

Last winter, when Arts Council Executive Director Jeff Nathanson got the request from Mayor Lempert, he went to Evans and said “Make this work.” Evans invited Small World’s Jessica Durrie, George Akers and Peter Soderman to dinner and their enthusiasm fed each other’s. “Peter knows about building public art projects from his experiences with Writers Block and Quark Park,” Evans said. “So we drew up the plans thinking about re-creating the porch mentality, where people can come in, relax, take a load off.”

“It makes the street more convivial,” says Durrie, whose customers come out to enjoy their beverages en plein air. “I know parking is a big issue, but we’re OK with it. There are gathering spots at the fountain in front of Mediterra and Hinds Plaza in front of the library, but we also need pockets of surprise. The town still mourns the loss of Writers Block and Quark Park, and they’re hungry for spaces where people can chill out and talk to each other.”

“When you create public art, people will flock to it,” says Solow.

The location was selected because “it’s the hippest place in town,” says Evans. “Everyone loves coming here – it’s their regular place to start the day. In the future we’ll open it to other merchants.”

Programming for the parklet is still under development — Soderman envisions Shakespeare in the Parklet.

“We’re doing the opposite of the Joni Mitchell song,” says Soderman. “We’re unpaving a parking lot and putting up paradise.”

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The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.

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