It’s massive, it’s changed our skyline and it will hold many, many cars. Over a thousand of them. So far, there’s not much to disagree with. It’s all true. That’s where opinions diverge. I’ve made it clear before that I question whether we need so many parking garages and, more particularly, whether they all need to be in our precious, small, well-defined downtown. But it’s what commuters want – both shoppers and downtown workers.
The nine story (ten if you look at it from the western side) garage seems to be nearing the completion of its shell. There will be additional months of construction of details like elevators, lighting and so on, but it has clearly taken shape. The facade is built entirely of pre-fab concrete panels, some of which contain brick accents that mirror those on the Market Square Garage.
In addition to the sheer, stunning size of the garage, the south-facing side has drawn a large amount of the attention recently for its complete blankness – which isn’t allowed by downtown design guidelines. So, that was a large part of my focus as I spoke to the various people involved.
I spoke to Bill Lyons, Deputy to the Mayor, who said the following: “I have followed the construction of the garage with great interest as I walk by it multiple times each day. I did notice very early in the construction of the South wall that it was out of compliance with what Downtown Design had approved and I immediately started the process to let that the developer know this was unacceptable to the City and must be dealt with. It will be addressed prior to the opening of the Garage.” He suggested that I speak to Anne Wallace, Project Director for the City of Knoxville and a member of the Downtown Design Review Board.
I spoke with Anne, as well as Lori Matthews who is also a member of the Downtown Design Review Board. Lori directed me to relevant links to the December 2013 DDRB Agenda, Minutes and the approved designs for the garage. Discussion in that December meeting centered on several concerns, particularly the amount and location of retail space which is called for in the guidelines. Anne told me that the Knoxville Fire Department dictated that the south facing wall had to be a solid wall with no openings due to the buildable lot next door – it’s a potential firewall should there ever be a building on that spot.
She, like Bill Lyons, said that the spirit of the guidelines would ultimately be honored with stain that mimics or reflects the design of the brick on the other side. The temperature has to be consistently above fifty degrees for that to happen, so it seems likely to be late spring or summer. She noted that the intent is to see more texture on a building and that extensive conversation had been held over the building and that wall.
So, if it has to be a flat-surfaced firewall because the lot next to it could contain a building, how likely is that to happen in the foreseeable future? I thought the chances were remote, but I kept hearing intimations to the contrary, so I contacted David Dewhirst, owner of the property, to ask if he had any intention of building there. He said, “I hope that one day that is not an asphalt parking lot, but I have no (current) plans to build there. I abhor surface parking lots. I’d love to see all of them become interactive spaces.”
He continued, “Additional parking for downtown is a good thing. I wish it had more retail . . . maybe it wasn’t feasible. 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.” He said he wouldn’t mind seeing the downtown design guidelines be more forceful.
Finally, I spoke to Joe Petre, developer and one of the team of developers involved with this project. He clarified that the included parking will be split between TVA, which will have about 700 dedicated spaces and the Langley Building which will have about 400. The shift from an entirely TVA project, as was originally proposed, added spaces to the project and also places the building on the tax rolls, which would not have been the case with a federal agency.
As for the impact on the Langley Building, for which his company Conversion Properties is the leasing agent, he said it is currently half full, which he says is very good as it was empty when Kimberly Clark moved out. He says the downtown office market is experiencing a turnaround and he expects the building will fill its entire 200,000 square feet this year. He says the clients want dedicated parking and he feels the garage project is working to bring them to the city.
As a person who’s been downtown for over twenty years, he understands that the garage could have been done differently given a different set of circumstances, but they had a specific amount of room to use and a budget that required choices be made. He points out the difficulties in making a project this size even happen, let alone succeed. It took a year-and-a-half to get started. The possibility of acquiring more space on the block and making an L-shaped garage with more retail was considered, but didn’t work out. He feels they got the best result possible given the constraints.
There will be a single retail space of about 1200 to 1300 sq. feet on the northern, Summer Place side. It will not be on the corner, but will be close to it and, he hopes, across the street from a branch of Clayton Bank planned for the southwest corner of the Langley Building, providing a couple of possible pedestrian draws to the spot. The other use will be a two-story storage unit on the south-side which will be available for tenants of the building as well as the public.
As for the blank firewall, he indicated that, in addition to the stain that will be applied later, the owner may be willing to consider other possibilities. Mr. Petre is the chair of the board for Legacy Parks and says there has been some discussion of the feasibility of a climbing wall. (See Greg Manter’s article about the possibility.) He mentioned draping plants from the top which might soften the side or perhaps a mural.
In short, no one particularly thinks this is the best urban design, but it was deemed the best we could do. At what point do we shift our thinking and raise our expectations? Is it reasonable to expect dedicated parking at our door? Are there other ways to deal with the fact that we are so automotive centered? What about no more surface parking or free-standing garages in the city from this point forward? There are other options like garages out of the center-city with shuttles running into downtown. Lori Matthews pointed out that in Japan you don’t notice garages because they are above the stores lining the streets. They can also be built beneath new structures.
Those solutions would be more expensive and/or less convenient. But we only have so much space and we only have one shot in our lifetime at getting this right. The Knoxville skyline has changed once in the last thirty years – and we did it with a very ordinary parking garage. We can’t afford to continue to accept less than excellent. If we constantly settle for good enough, that’s what we’ll have: Knoxville? Oh, it’s good enough. We deserve and can deliver better than that. What will our legacy be, office buildings and garages? It has to stop at some point. How about now?
I’d love to have your thoughts below. Please remember that on this site we have respectful, productive conversation. Disagree with me or anyone quoted in the article, but do so in a respectful, thoughtful and intelligent manner. Tomorrow I’ll have a look at a possible solution for the south-facing wall.