Parking Garage: Urgent Plea

View of Parking Garage Site from Union Avenue, Knoxville, July 2012

I’m going another round on this one because I think it is so important. The more I’ve thought about it, the more steamed I get at the various parts of the equation. I’m also bring it up now because YOU HAVE TWO DAYS TO COMMENTTVA is taking comments for the next two days (through July 25) and then the comment period is closed.

So why should you leave a comment? Because an entire end of our very limited downtown real estate will be impacted for generations by the decisions to be made jointly by the city and TVA. I believe a very real chance exists that this decision will not be made with the best long-term interest of downtown given the weight it deserves.

In the short-term, the city, TVA, Kimberly Clark and others seem convinced that more parking is necessary for the continued growth of the center city. The opinion isn’t universal. Michael Haynes questioned the math in a recent issue of Metropulse. While parking becomes difficult on certain days and, particularly, during major downtown events, it typically isn’t a problem. Strangely, the new garage is touted as a solution for evening parking, while two existing garages (Summerplace and TVA) sit beside it and could just as easily be opened by the same organization without the expense of building a garage.

But this seems to have been rendered a moot question: Forces are moving forward to build the garage. On the good side, no beautiful buildings with potential for other uses are being destroyed. No one seems to argue that the Liberty Building is anything but an eyesore. The parking would also, at the least, quiet momentarily the voices always primed to decry the impossibility of parking in the city.

What’s really driving me mad as I think about the proposal is how it is literally driven by driving and that is the very thing that has destroyed so much of downtown. How many buildings have we lost because we aren’t willing to walk a few blocks to shop, worship or play? TVA has already played a part in the destruction: The towers were erected over a once vibrant portion of Market Square and at least one beautiful legacy building was destroyed in the process: The Saint James Hotel. Read about it on my friend John’s excellent Knoxville Lost and Found blog.

So, we’ve torn down beautiful buildings for convenient parking. We’ve also chopped our downtown into a tiny island for the sake of cars by the tunnel/Henley Street project, the interstate, James White Parkway and Summit Hill Avenue. If we place a large concrete box on the proposed property we’ve created another dead section of downtown for the sake of the automobile with the collection of garages starting at the Hilton and running through the Locust Street, the new garage to the Summerplace, TVA and Market Square Garages.

The one thing that kept these garages from being totally devoted to the automobile was that multi-use designs were employed that gave us Pete’s Coffee Shop (Locust Street Garage) and condos and shops (The Casual Pint, Nothing Fancy, The Tree and Vine) in the Market Square Garage. Why should we do any less in this location?

Sidewalk along Union Avenue near Locust Street2, Knoxville, July 2012

Taking a larger view of the area, several issues could be addressed at once, improving this entire section of the city. On the Union Avenue end of the block the beautifully redesigned, once vacant, Daylight building now houses five vibrant businesses including a book store and a very important grocery store. Just steps away from that building, however, neglect is apparent.

Listing Stop Sign, Car Parked on Sidewalk, Union Avenue at Locust, Knoxville, July 2012

The sidewalks are crumbling worse than any other I know of in the downtown proper area. The primary reason they are so deteriorated is that they are routinely driven over by people parking in the lot at the corner of Locust and Union. This sidewalk is the primary connection between Market Square and Chesapeakes and could only help them if improved. It also gives visitors to the city the feeling that downtown ends at that point. It’s ugly and it’s dangerous. After repairing the sidewalks, the owner of the parking lot needs to be required to add turtarriers (concrete parking blocks) at the end of the spaces to prevent people from driving though the sidewalk – which is not only bad for the sidewalk, but dangerous to pedestrians.

Tangled electrical, phone and cable lines, Locust Street, Knoxville, July 2012

Look down Locust and you witness something else hard – if not impossible – to find downtown: exposed electrical, cable and telephone wires. Why does the rest of downtown have completely underground utilities while this neglected desert portion sports a ready-made bird’s nest for the interested and lazy among our feathered friends? It looks horrible and adds to the idea that the “real downtown” or “safe downtown” is on Market Square – a mentality that we simply must end.

If these improvements were included in a comprehensive plan for the block, it would make the attention more palatable. Would it be enough? No. The garage itself simply must be multi-use, and preferably beautiful. Look at the picture below of the parking garage in Kansas City and ask yourself: Has Knoxville ever done anything that cool? How much more would it cost to make something beautiful instead of ugly? This design probably didn’t add greatly to the cost of the project, but it added joy, interest and an indescribably cool factor. I’d go to that part of downtown Kansas City just to see the parking garage!

Kansas City Garage (photograph by Jonathan Moreau)

It also must be multi-use. How much would people be willing to pay for a condo on top of a building this tall on the north side of town? The top condo in the Holston recently sold for over $850,000. Why couldn’t this be the same? If not condos – which we’ve already successfully incorporated into the Market Square Garage, then we simply must have space along as much of the street as possible for shops or offices. Small businesses providing services to the buildings in the towers would make complete sense. Shops a block from Market Square and on the same block as the Daylight building would totally work.

If we want downtown to eventually connect with real estate outside its small box, if we want to fully utilize the small area we do have, if we want the great growth downtown to continue, we simply must make smart decisions when given the opportunity. The vitality of our city a generation from now rests in the balance of each of these decisions, great and small, that we make today.

So comment, and do it quickly, before it is too late.