In May 2015, a parklet opened on Witherspoon Street in downtown Princeton, across from Small World Coffee. Parklets, defined as temporary sidewalk extensions built to enhance street life, were first developed in San Francisco in 2010. Princeton’s parklet turned out to be a big hit for the Arts Council of Princeton and the town government, which spearheaded the project. The parklet was open throughout the summer and closed in October 2015. To learn a little bit about this piece of local urban planning, Society of Princeton Urbanists co-president Harrison Blackman ‘17 sat down with Kirsten Thoft, a local architect who was part of the design team behind the structure. Editor’s Note: This interview was recorded on July 17, 2015.
Society for Princeton Urbanists: Can you tell me a little about your experience as an architect?
Kirsten Thoft: I started my own firm about 18 years ago, 19 years ago, at this point, partly because I worked at Graves [Michael Graves & Associates] for a few years, I worked at Hiller [Hillier Group] for a few years and I found that I liked to do everything, which is kind of categorized as design, technical and management in architecture firms. But in a big firm, which those are Hillier in particular, they want to stick you in a pigeonhole… and they were like you are a good manager. But I want to design too! So I thought it would be best to get out and start my own thing. I have three kids and the oldest one is 16, so I basically have a couple of years of practice before I had kids, and then it’s been kids-kids-kids. They are very intense at the beginning, of course, when they’re really young and you have three of them.
So I would say that I was sort of working part time when I started, and doing smaller projects. I used to tell people that I would only take projects that were in stroller-walking distance to my house because then I could bring my kids there. For a long time, I did a lot of renovations, a lot of small additions kind of stuff. It’s only the past few years that the kids are old enough, you know, they’re all in school, that I can actually, pretty much work full time. So I’ve been able to work on bigger projects. A new house, bigger additions, much bigger renovations, and also my husband and I started buying real estate of our own in addition to our house in 2001-2002. And so I’ve been doing those projects on the side, but it’s not really on the side… because of course what we’ve been doing is buying things, renting them out, being landlords, renovating them and often times finding things that needed zoning variances or other kind of legal stuff and then renovating them and then selling them. I kind of divide my time between clients and that sort of development… [I] basically have chosen to do only things where I’d want to live there. For me, that’s very much in the center of Princeton, because I’m not a person who wants to be in the suburbs.
KT: Even though we’re in the suburbs.
SPU: This is the suburbs.
KT: It is the suburbs, I know, but right here, it kind of feels like a little city, a little bit urban.
SPU: Could you tell me about the parklet, and what set you on working on the parklet?
KT: It really wasn’t me being set on the parklet. It was the mayor [Liz Lempert], last year… there was some day, called “Parking Day”… and whatever group this is encourages people to take over a parking space in their town and declare it a park for one day. And they did that here last year, and apparently they just put a parking meter bag over the parking meter, and put out a couple plants, and a couple chairs and a table, and called it a park. (And I think they took one of those funny hexagonal things that’s in front of the Arts Council and moved it here.) So it had a couple elements. And people were so excited about it—it was one day—so the mayor decided she wanted to do that on a more permanent basis. It’s still obviously a temporary structure. So she talked to the Arts Council. They then recruited the guy who organized these benches and planting stuff [Peter Soderman], who is an artist, and then Jessica [Durrie], who owns Small World, and they asked if they could put it in front of her store and her husband is a builder, and they asked him if he could help out with this. They had their whole gang and they did some sketchy pencil sketches of about what they wanted. And they then brought them to the town planner, to ask his permission. And he was like, I can’t read these drawings. We need an architect, we need architectural drawings… They didn’t really know what they were asking for. It wasn’t really my idea at all.
They asked me if I was interested and I thought it was a cool idea, so I said yes. So I drew it. You have to talk to the builder, and find out what materials they can get for cheap, and how can you use those materials most effectively, and talk to the town, and what exactly do they want, because they built the platform, there’s an ADA [American Disabilities Act of 1990] requirement, the platform versus the curb, where that needs to be, how far on the street it could go, how much of the parking space it could take up.
And I came out and measured the actual pitch of the street… where the trees were and all that. It had to take a couple of iterations for everybody to say, okay, we’re okay with this. The town is very concerned about safety, the barrier between [the parklet] and the street, they don’t want some kid launching himself in the street. But it’s funny, because you’re like, but everywhere there are cars going by and there are kids and why are you not worried about that? Because it’s an x-factor for them. Because if you put something up, and someone gets launched in the street, then it’s a lawsuit…
So I did the architect’s job, which is to kind of pull everything together and get it to happen. This was in April .
SPU: This is the first year there has been a parklet?
Initially they thought it would only just be up for a month [in May]. But apparently it has been very popular. We had a meeting … where we decided it would stay up through October. So basically the full season.