NEW YORK >> Prime parking space on a teeming block in Manhattan’s garment district is reserved for people, not cars.
A cedar booth that would be perfect for lounging on an outdoor deck sits on top of two parking spots, flanked by a forest of bamboo, begonia and potato vine. It showed up earlier this month, breaking up the line of delivery trucks and commercial vehicles at the curb.
“It kind of gives me a serene moment in the midst of all the chaos,” said Jason McCoy, 28, a publicist, who was parked there for his morning coffee. He also has taken phone calls and met with clients, and even posted a photo of his new hangout on Instagram.
The repurposed parking spots are the latest effort to carve out more open space on New York City’s crowded streets and sidewalks. These blink-and-miss-them bits of greenery — called “street seats” — have spread along commercial corridors, though they are often overlooked or overshadowed by sprawling pedestrian plazas. In contrast, street seats are tiny and temporary, returning to parking spots come winter.
“Their charm is that they are not a lot of work, and not particularly big, but they really enhance the street,” said Polly Trottenberg, the city transportation commissioner. “It’s a relatively nimble way to reclaim public space.”
There are 18 pop-up street seats this summer, double the number from 2015, according to the city. They range from one in Tribeca that attracts moms and tots in strollers to another in Brownsville, Brooklyn, that has become popular for alfresco dining. In a hands-on lesson in urban planning, students at the Parsons School of Design at The New School in Greenwich Village have designed a street seat with drought-resistant plants that draws about 250 people daily.
The street seats grew out of a national movement that began in San Francisco in 2005 when members of an arts collective called Rebar transformed a parking spot with grass turf, bench and potted tree, and invited passers-by to feed the meter. The experiment inspired a daylong celebration, known as Park(ing) Day, in which people took over parking spots. Later, a new generation of curbside micro parks, or “parklets,” was born.
“The miniboom in parklets nationwide underscores how cities are reinventing how they use their most abundant public space — their streets,” said Alex Engel, a spokesman for The National Association of City Transportation Officials, which has included parklets in its guide to urban street design.
New York’s version of the parklet is the result of a partnership between the city’s Transportation Department and local groups, including real estate developers, property owners and small businesses, including coffee shops and pizzerias. These groups pay for the street seats, which typically cost between $10,000 and $20,000 each, with the city often reimbursing at least some of the cost, and are responsible for maintaining them.
While each street seat typically takes up two parking spots, the benefits of serving hundreds of people a day — versus a handful of cars — have outweighed any concerns over lost parking, said Shari Gold, a senior manager in the transportation department’s public space program. She added the department approves a street seat only with the agreement of the local community board, nearby businesses and property owners.
Manuel Villalobos, 56, a furrier whose van was recently parked next to the street seat in the garment district, said that he did not mind because it only took away a spot or two. “It’s actually nice, you see more green,” he said. “Sometimes you have to give a little to get a little.”
The street seat on West 37th Street, near Eighth Avenue, is one of two that were inserted into parking lanes in the neighborhood; the other is on West 35th Street. Two others were placed on a stretch of Broadway that is already closed to vehicle traffic for the summer. All four were paid for by the Garment District Alliance, which operates a business improvement district in the neighborhood; the cost for the four was $48,000.
The street seats are made up of Tetris-like modular triangular pieces that allow for a custom fit at each site. The flexible system was designed and built by Parkways, a company that grew out of infrastructure research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has built parklets in Cambridge, MIT’s hometown.
Barbara Blair, the president of the alliance, said the garment district needs more public spaces because foot traffic has increased. The neighborhood, which is sandwiched between two popular tourist destinations, Times Square and Herald Square, has become home to 37 new hotels since 2005. About 106,000 people work in the area, up from 89,000 in 2005, according to state data.
“There is no breathing room in this neighborhood,” she said. “The buildings are very tall and the sidewalks are very narrow.”
Blair said her group had tried to introduce street seats several years ago, but found no interest, in part because they had asked businesses to bear half the cost. So this year they decided to pay for them. There were also concerns about how to keep the street seats clean, and whether they would become magnets for the homeless.
Last month, the alliance hired four additional sanitation workers, for a total of 40, and extended cleaning hours to address the increased trash around the street seats and the closed stretch of Broadway. These workers will ask a homeless person to move somewhere else when they clean, Blair said.
Even so, a homeless man was stretched out sleeping on the street seat on West 35th Street on a recent afternoon. An empty soda can and plastic cup had been tossed into a planter.
Mick Loizou, 50, the manager of Lemony, a Greek restaurant nearby, said that although he liked the street seat, he often ended up having to clean it. “The problem is people leave their trash,” he said. “I come in the morning and it’s full of trash.”
But a few blocks away, the other street seat was spotless. It was packed with people eating lunch and talking on cellphones. The lush plants made Louis Vasquez, 76, a retired garment worker, pause on the sidewalk.
“We don’t get to see too many trees,” he said. “All the fumes from the cars, that’s what you get around here.”