Parking Garages are a Good Thing, Right?

Proposed site for Parking Garage: Locust and Summer Place

How many years have we heard “there’s no parking downtown?” It comes up repeatedly anytime the center city is mentioned,mostly by people who don’t frequent the area. Previously we answered the concern replacing buildings with parking lots. Hopefully we’re past that.

Recently it’s been a topic for people who live and work in the city. Kimberly Clark and Recovery Corporation of Knoxville both mentioned it as they departed. “Full” signs have been illuminated on the various garages during some major events this spring. TVA forced the parking issue with its neighbors. Parking continues to be easy for me in the Locust Street Garage, though I no longer get the perfect spot every night.

The State Street Garage is slated for expansion and a new proposal would have the city buy property bounded by Locust Street, Summer Place and Walnut for a new parking garage. TVA would bear the cost of building the garage and make it available for free parking on nights and weekends. It sounds good, right? Everybody gets something.

The proposed location isn’t a bad choice in one sense: It’s currently an eyesore. One end of the property features a hole which used to be a basement. Most recently it hosted a car that flew off Locust, sailed through the air and landed in one corner. On Walnut sits a former TVA building which is not quite as ugly as the Bell South building on Magnolia, but certainly isn’t attractive.


Building to be Demolished on Walnut


So, what’s the problem? I have a couple of concerns. I’m no urban planner, banker or developer, so I’m open to any reasoned arguments from those who are, but I’ll lay out what worries me.

We have a very small downtown area. We have nature to thank for the river, of course, which cuts downtown off to the south. But we have short-sighted development to thank for the thoroughfares that segregate downtown in every other direction: James White Parkway to the east, Summit Hill and the Interstate to the north and Henley Street to the West. In recent years we’ve pumped more rapid-fire traffic onto Henley via the tunnel from the Interstate.

Notice what all those barriers have in common with the buildings we lost to parking lots a generation ago? Cars. The automobile. The mode of transportation Americans have welded to our insistence on personal freedom. So, when we talk about more construction and use of extremely limited downtown real estate to further accommodate personal vehicles, it makes me a bit nervous. That’s how we got into this mess.

Additionally, the placement of this garage seems troubling. A walk down Locust and then to Market Square illustrates the point: The Hilton Garage segues into the Locust Street Garage and cross a parking lot to site of the new garage. That’s three consecutive garages – but wait, there’s more. Turn right on Summer Place to walk toward Market Square and the new garage would be on your right. On your left? The Summer Place Garage. In front of you? The Market Square (or Walnut) Garage. Welcome to the Garage District.

Can we afford to give up so much of our very limited downtown space to more garages? I’m not proposing light rail from west Knoxville, though that would be great. I’m not even suggesting that people could ride a bus downtown, though they should. Would it not be possible for arriving suburbanites to park in a garage just outside the center city and take shuttle buses into downtown? Is it conceivable that we might restrict new downtown construction to multi-use buildings? Even the Walmart next to UT campus is building parking underneath it.

Of course, there is a middle ground: Build a parking garage that incorporates retail/office space or residences. The precedent is set in the Locust Street and Market Square garages, though the results have been mixed. Pete’s Coffee Shop has done very well in the Locust Street Garage for years. On the Clinch Avenue side of the building businesses have struggled. The office/retail space on the south side of the Market Square Garage languished for years, but now seems poised for great success and the Residences at Market Square are full.

Downtown design ordinances require new construction to be “pedestrian friendly,” and the mayor has indicated that would be respected. No blank concrete walls in other words. For me, that’s not enough. Joe Petre was quoted as pointing out that it is simply not a viable commercial district. The same could have been said four years ago about Union Avenue. Yet, there are a good many people living within two blocks of this street at the Daylight and Pembroke buildings and at Kendrick Place and Crown Court. Additionally, the garage will generate additional foot traffic and will be within half a block of the Union Avenue development.

Any discussion of construction downtown needs to be guided by a larger vision. Jack Neely hinted at this in a piece last year about the need for Knoxville to find its soul. Do we want to be a Disney version of a city covering Market Square and a few blocks of Gay Street surrounded by garages or do we want to expand the footprint of downtown and grow into a vibrant city? Do we simply want to fill office towers or do we want more people to make downtown their home?

This parking garage and the design it ultimately takes will be a statement of our vision. I hope we are thinking further down the road for our center city than we were when we allowed those various highways and traffic arteries to dissect and isolate our downtown.