2017-04-27 / Front Page

Plug Park: Love at First Site

By Betsy Sherman Walker


Leppy McCarthy of Newport is one of the first to take a seat at the new entirely solar-powered parklet on Williams Street. It is equipped with 10 charging stations and seats 10. (Photo by Lynne Tungett) Leppy McCarthy of Newport is one of the first to take a seat at the new entirely solar-powered parklet on Williams Street. It is equipped with 10 charging stations and seats 10. (Photo by Lynne Tungett) From a distance, the small wood-framed kiosk looks a bit like an urban concession stand, or an open-air gardener’s shed, built of cedar, with seats and an arbor-type covering. Getting closer, one notices the built-in bench banked along the back, the space behind it for plants, the 10 charging stations, the desk platforms that could hold a laptop and the array of solar panels overhead.

On the side is a sign that reads, “Public Parklet/All Seating is Open to the Public.”

Newport’s first Plug Park has arrived. Located at the top of Williams Street at the corner of Bellevue Avenue, the newest addition to Newport’s summer streetscape was put into place on Wednesday, April 26.


Tree Warden Scott Wheeler's team built the parklet based on Planning Board Chair Kim Salerno's design. (Photo by Lynne Tungett) Tree Warden Scott Wheeler's team built the parklet based on Planning Board Chair Kim Salerno's design. (Photo by Lynne Tungett) There was no brass band, but for such a seemingly small addition to the local streetscape, there was a lot of administrative fanfare. In attendance were Mayor Harry Winthrop, City Manager Joseph Nicholson, Director of Public Services Bill Riccio and Newport Tree Warden Scott Wheeler.

Two years ago, looking for ways to observe its 100th year of serving communities across the state, the Rhode Island Foundation chose to give back by awarding Centennial Community Grants. They were looking for projects that would speak to the uniqueness of each city or town, and that would include “engaging programming that invites people to experience community in public spaces.”

Among the grants awarded was one for $14,800 for a Plug Park in Newport. Described by the Foundation as a “mobile, solar powered recreational space,” it is basically a plein-air porta-charger that enhances without detracting from the city sidewalk.

The project was proposed by Newport Planning Board Chair Kim Salerno. A parklet, she explained, “is any little built structure. It’s a term used by planners and designers.” While new to Newport’s street scene, Salerno said that New York City restaurants use them to extend dining space during the summer months. In San Francisco, she added, anybody can make a request for one. They are designed to take up no more space than a carbide parking spot.

Salerno’s idea was to bring something to the community and fulfill a need. At the dedication ceremony, she explained that when writing the proposal, she was driven by a sense of 18th-century Newport and the people who lived and worked here along with the city scenes of today. Using that parallel vision, she said, “I thought of building on the bricks and mortar of the past and using that to augment [what exists today].”

She also wanted to create something “that would bring the beach to the sidewalk.”

A self-described “internet devotee,” Salerno, an architect with Haven Designers, told Newport This Week one year ago that she saw the parklet as “a much-needed amenity,” and a way to make the Newport cityscape “more internet-friendly.

There was a collective chuckle when Salerno thanked the Rhode Island Foundation “for taking a risk” with her idea. “When I started,” she admitted, “I was not sure how it was going to end up.”

“I was scared to death,” Wheeler admitted. “I had no idea how to go about constructing it.”

Wheeler said that it turned into “an amazing experience,” and he praised the members of the Public Services staff, who “fully embraced the project.” Under the cedar, he explained, is a custom-built metal superstructure.

“It was nice to have a project that combined different groups and efforts,” Salerno said, citing the Energy and Environment Commission, Bike Newport, the Health Equity Zone project and the Newport Innovation Hub.

Other spots around town were considered, said Salerno. She said Williams Street worked because the alignment had to be east-west to maximize the solar panels, it is a venue heavy with foot traffic almost year-round, and it is adjacent to the small public space in front of Empire Tea & Coffee.

For many, seeing the parklet was love at first sight. One observer told Salerno that it has “transformed the street.”

“I like to see evidence of innovation in public places,” she said. “Newport should begin to look like the city it wants to become.”

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