Closure (For Now) on Parking and Development – Plus an Idea: Vertical Gardens

Vertical Garden in London
Vertical Garden in London (Photo Source)

Let me start today’s post with some comments and clarifications after yesterday’s (mostly) good conversation. I tried in my article to give each of the different perspectives on what is a complicated economic issue. As Bill Lyons pointed out in his comment, finding the right balance and knowing when to take a leap of faith that development is coming is difficult. Deciding which concessions to make to foster which types of investment is also difficult.

Further, Stuart made a good point that architects are given parameters under which they must work. Give a certain amount of space and a particular budget, there is only so much they can do. It’s important that we start from the perspective that the vast majority of us love this city and are trying to make it better – or at least trying to do our jobs the best we can. No architect designs the worst building they can imagine.

Vertical Garden by Patrick Blanc
Vertical Garden by Patric Blanc (Photo Source)

To be perfectly clear as to my concerns, it isn’t really the loss of views – as Jesse pointed out, those change in a city that is growing. It isn’t actually the blank wall, which is awful, but has to be solid in order to serve as a firewall in case of eventual development on the space adjacent to the garage.

My concern is two fold: Do we really need more parking and whether we do or do not, can we afford to cede any more downtown space to dead zones? Office buildings and parking garages are basically dead zones outside of work hours. Walk Main Street at night. Walk the southern end of Gay Street at night. Summer Place is officially dead for a generation outside work hours. If we ever want to grow our downtown beyond Market Square and a small strip of Gay Street, we have to fight to preserve or reclaim other areas for mixed-use development.

As for more parking, Judith Meyer, a downtown resident sent me a link yesterday to an article that came out just a day before our conversation, in City Lab. In a study of 27 mixed use areas across the country, a recent study concluded that every single city, town and suburb had too much parking. The average overage was 65%. Still, many of the citizens of those areas felt they did not have adequate parking. It’s a perception that isn’t remedied by more parking. It’s a good article which you may read here.

Vertical Garden in Taiwan
Vertical Garden in Taiwan (Photo Source)

If we can’t attract large corporations to downtown office space without dedicated parking, then maybe we need to pass on that until our downtown is so good they can’t resist. I don’t know if other cities build dedicated parking for their downtown office buildings, but I doubt it. At some point we have to think enough of ourselves to say that we won’t give up another portion of our potential just because we can get some sort of deal today.

As Jesse also pointed out yesterday, guidelines can be changed. Maybe we are at a point in our development as a city that we need to re-examine what we accept in new development. Maybe we need to think enough of ourselves to say “no” to development which isn’t to our long-term benefit. As David Dewhirst stated, “I would love to see retail corridors on every street. Every building should be multi-use. Not requiring that is precluding retail. Eventually it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Going forward, if a developer can’t produce a multi-use development, maybe we just need to respectfully decline.

Vertical Garden in Paris
Vertical Garden in Paris (Photo Source)

That said, what are we going to do with our ugly wall? There are options if we’d take them. Will we? Or will we just say it’s good enough? Stain will help, but it doesn’t really make that wall acceptable. We could have a series of murals, though it is a massive wall and someone would have to pay for the murals. We could have very tall climbing walls – Joe Petre brought this up as a possibility when I talked to him and Greg Manter wrote about the possibility on this blog last September.

Then there is the possibility of a vertical garden, examples of which you are seeing in this post. It would not be an easy project on a massive south-facing wall, but it is being done all over the world, so why not here? I get tired of seeing very cool things somehow happening in other cities but never being seen as practical for Knoxville. We really need to work on our self-concept, people! So, the pictures you are seeing are some examples I found of vertical gardens.

David's Rendition of a Vertical Garden on the Walnut Street Garage
David’s Rendition of a Vertical Garden on the Walnut Street Garage

David Denton, who you know from his Southern Crossing proposal suggested a vertical garden. Here’s his take:

“We are all grateful, especially those of us who live downtown, for the preservation of the wonderful historic buildings so rich in detail and decoration that please the eye.  To quote a plaque in Market Square, “The debt to the past is to be paid to the future.”  It is our responsibility to build good quality well-designed projects so that future generations will prosper from the desirability of the environment they inherit.  The new parking structure under construction downtown is remarkably void of these visual pleasures.  Of particular concern is the vast south facing façade.  Perhaps it is not too late to salvage this unfortunate consequence. Vertical gardens have become popular in Europe and other parts of the world but are yet to be known in the United States.  An application of this new vertical garden technology might just turn this offending wall into a pleasure for the eye.”

I also spoke to Nina Ash, a local landscape designer who operates Green Ash Designs, specializing in interior vertical gardens. She said while exterior walls are not her focus, something like, “A wire system (think a cage-like system about half a foot from the wall) and planting some vines at the base of the building to climb up the wall” might work.  She suggested, “native vines, such as Virginia Creeper which grows very fast, and also Crossvine, to help support nearby wildlife and insects. Evening Trumpet-flower is a great vine that produces a pretty orange-pinkish flower in the spring-summer.” She noted that maintenance would be a big commitment.

Vertical Garden in Palm Beach
Vertical Garden in Palm Beach (Photo Source)

As I researched them, I found that it is possible to build a low maintenance version which stores rainwater (like on the top of a garage) and has a timed release. This reduces runoff which is a problem in cities. The foliage also reduces the temperature – another problem in cities – and consumes carbon dioxide while producing oxygen, which is helpful to us all.

So, as you can see from the photographs, there are many kinds of vertical gardens. Perhaps the wall is big enough to support murals, a climbing wall and vertical gardens. It isn’t the kind of mixed use for a building that we might choose, but at least it would get some human interaction happening on that spot and create interest, rather than aversion upon spotting it. Or is anything just too much trouble, not practical and simply beyond our will to make it happen? We’ll find out.

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