Competing Downtown Parking Survey and Report Released

Downtown Areas Covered by Parking Garages or Lots
Downtown Areas Covered by Parking Garages or Lots

Last week the city released the study it commissioned from Walker Consultants offering a 163 page look at the state of parking in the city and changes they suggest to improve accessibility and fairness including, as some suspected, suggesting the need for increased fees. While the Walker Consultants did recommend increasing parking fees, they also suggested a range of other changes to make parking easier in the city. I read the whole thing so you wouldn’t have to, but if you prefer, the city has given you the opportunity to read the full report yourself.

Knowing this report was in the offing and assuming it would question the continued availability of free nights and weekend parking in city-owned garages, a group of downtown business owners distributed a different survey, garnering over 15,000 responses. Both the city’s study and the alternative survey results were posted on back-to-back days. We’ll start with the larger report, looking at both surveys (the Walker Study includes a survey, as well) along the way.

Calling their report “a basis for discussion and a guide for policy, decision-making, and strategic planning for parking as Knoxville’s downtown areas continue to grow,” the Walker Consultants offered a few takeaways:

  • There is, overall, plenty of parking in the downtown area that accommodates today’s needs as well as future development.
    • Centralized oversight across all parking operations, policy, and strategy is critical to transitioning from overseeing assets to managing a system.
    • Knoxville has an opportunity to improve the experience of visitors to downtown in locating their parking options.
    • As Knoxville continues to grow, opportunities exist to improve and ensure parking remains a positive experience for all.

Nice bullet points, but how did they get there? And we all know where the devil hides. So, let’s look at some of the details. I found some of it surprising. You may as well.

Starting with a look at where we are, the consultants point out that 25% of developable land downtown is dedicated to parking (93 acres, equal to about 60 Market Squares). Most of that space is surface parking (74 acres). There are just over 9,300 parking spaces downtown in surface lots and 11,000 in garages, but of those over 20,000 spaces, 9,734 are publicly managed.

Average Weekend Occupancy of the Dwight Kessell Garage

The group says that overall, there is plenty (“an oversupply”) of parking, but that a deficit is felt at the most popular spots. “The Market Square Garage (MSG) reaches parking occupancies over 90% approximately six or seven weekdays per month, and on most weekends.” Other garages, not so much. They point out, “Meanwhile, the much larger State Street Garage (SSG) is only three blocks away from MSG on the other side of Market Square and Gay Street and has much greater availability. SSG’s peak occupancy exceeded 90% less than one weekday per month, and average weekday peak parking occupancy ranges between 56% and 64% by month.”

The group looked at parking data covering January through July of last year and noted the glaring discrepancies. The Dwight Kessel Garage, for example, sits at one end of Gay Street in relatively easy walking distance of all of downtown for people who can walk a bit. Offering nearly 1,000 spaces (974), it “never exceeded 60% occupancy in the four-month period between April and July 2023 (occupancy data before April was not collected/provided). Between the State Street Garage and Dwight Kessel Garage alone, there are hundreds of convenient parking spaces that are almost always available.”

But what about being financially sustainable? The consultants maintain a position that the garages and street parking should pay for itself. Lighting, striping, cameras, staffing and so on are expensive, even if you write off the sunk costs of building the garages.  Knoxville’s parking system is not currently or historically self-sustaining but has seen some improvement. Removing 2020 to 2022 (during which parking income crashed as people stayed home) revenue generated from the system increased from $66,000 in 2019 to $313,000 in 2023. That hasn’t been nearly enough to sustain the garages, as the city has pulled $2.37 million from general funds for parking related expenses over the last five years.

That leaves two options: leave things as they are and the general budget covers the costs or look for ways to close the gap. Some of the methods to increase income that the report mentions do not include increasing fees to the public. For example, “The City’s agreement for the Riverwalk Garage requires the City to maintain and manage the parking structure while only getting compensation for 34.78% of expenses incurred.” Of course, it goes for the one everyone expected: “The City offers free parking on nights and weekends, representing a significant source of unrealized revenue. Additionally, “There are several preexisting agreements that offer some organizations significant discounts on monthly parking fees. Finally, income from parking citations does not go into the parking fund.”

What are those pre-existing agreements that result in “significant discounts on monthly parking fees” and why do they exist? The report puts it this way, “Having historically used parking as a means of economic development for downtown when it was not the active and vibrant place it is today, the City now has a variety of contracts with private developers, hotels, churches, and event venues that guarantee below market parking rates.” They offer specific examples and suggest that these agreements should be revisited now that downtown has changed so much. Here are the ones they mentioned:

  • HT Hackney: 23 complimentary monthly permits for the State Street Garage,
    •Farragut Hotel: 160 discounted monthly permits in a nested part of the State Street Garage for $32.50/month each
    • Knoxville Chamber: Up to 50 complimentary monthly permits for the Market Square Garage
    • Regal Cinema: Can validate unlimited 3-hour parking sessions at any City parking structure
    •University of Tennessee: Up to 330 spaces at the Locust Street Garage for monthly parking customers at $56.50 and validations based on the University of Tennessee’s daily rate.

Of these special arrangements, the report says, “Because of special development agreements and contracts, the parking operator has to reserve spaces in some facilities, even if they are not being used. Review of these contracts is critical for developing facility-specific operating plans and policies regarding permit sales.”

State Street Garage, Knoxville, March 2019

The Surveys

The two surveys, including the one in the Walker Report and the one conducted by downtown merchants, asked very different questions. The Walker Report questioned about 1,000 people including a sampling of downtown residents, downtown workers, and others who live nearby and commute to downtown often. Some of the responses were generated in person at a series of meetings while others were collected online. The Merchants survey obtained about 15,000 responses as it spread mostly via social media.

In the Walker Report, respondents were asked about their preference between the cost of parking, finding available parking spaces quickly, and having parking located in a convenient place close to their destination, recognizing that having cheap, easy-to-find spaces, near your final destination is a trifecta not often found in a city. The largest group, 45%, said they would give up convenience (AKA walk further) for easy to find and cheap. They also included questions like whether respondents feel there is enough downtown parking (85% said yes, though some said not during peak times). You can see their full questionnaire here, starting on page 128. Just above that you’ll see the answers and how they broke down.

The merchant’s questionnaire focused mostly on free parking nights and weekends (you can read the full results and questionnaire here). They asked questions like: Is there enough parking? (64% said “too little”) Is there enough free parking? (54 percent – expand days/hours of free parking, 45% keep current policies). Do you favor or oppose ending the city’s current policy of free parking on nights and weekends? (97% Oppose) For business owners they asked respondents whether they felt eliminating free parking would hurt employee recruitment and retention (85% said yes) or negatively impact their number of patrons (88% said yes).

With little overlap between the two, there is not much to compare. Clearly many people oppose removal of free night and weekend parking in city-owned garages and the business owners surveyed said they thought it would hurt their businesses. The only question the two surveys had in common related to whether the city has adequate parking. With 85% saying yes on the Walker survey, and only 36% saying yes to that question on the Business survey, clearly the surveys reached different audiences.


Among other recommendations, the Walker Consultants suggested a different structure within city government centralizing control over the range of parking issues. They suggested that the most convenient spots should cost more to drive long-term parkers to long-term spots. According to them, metered spots should increase from $1.5 to $2 and parking citations should increase from $11 to $26 (they pointed out that during special events it’s cheaper to get a ticket). They recommend increasing charges for hotel valet spaces from the current $250 per year to $5800 per year. more closely approximating the lost revenue from giving up the space.

Additionally, they suggested that businesses should be able to reserve (for a market price) street parking spaces for additional dining or other uses. They recommended increases in the parking prices (particularly monthly) for the Market Square Garage (because it is where everyone wants to park) and for the Coliseum Garages (because it is so underpriced).

They recommended uniformity between city-owned garages (currently $1 per hour) and county-owned garages (currently $2 per hour).  They also suggested better branding and signage so people could more easily locate parking. Parking information is found on three websites, and they recommended consolidating it and using technology to better direct people to available parking, as well as to enforce violations. They suggested charging for TDOT lots (under James White Parkway, for example) during events.

Parking Garage Rate Comparisons of Knoxville and Similar Cities

What About Free Nights and Weekends?

They start their entire rate discussion with a comparison of four cities including Knoxville, Chattanooga, Asheville, and Lexington. As you can see in the graphic, Knoxville charges less per hour for parking than any of the others, on average. Doubling the cost to $2 per hour would still leave us the same as or lower than the other three. As for nights and weekends, neither Asheville nor Chattanooga lower their rates at night. Lexington shifts to a flat rate at night of $3 to $6 without a time limit and offers a flat rate on weekends of $3 to $12.

There is a mixed bag here, but the report did not recommend doing away with the idea of free nights and weekends entirely, though free nights may be more-or-less removed if their recommendation is adopted. They suggested changing the hours for charging in garages to 8:00 am to 10:00 pm, which would make it consistent with the hours of charging for street parking. They also recommended gates that stay down, preventing parkers from arriving before 10:00 pm and leaving after, thereby avoiding payment for the covered hours. At current rates, arriving at 6:00 pm for dinner and leaving at midnight after drinks or a show, for example, would cost $4.

Weekends are less clear in the report. If the days that meters operate was applied to garages, that would mean the garages would charge on Saturdays, though they never suggest that explicitly. The report doesn’t address the days specifically. That said, the recommendations include establishing a person who oversees all the various parking spots and giving them authority to change rates as they determine it is needed. The Langley Garage is not impacted by this recommendation as their deed requires free nights and weekends.

 So, What Happens Now?

“City staff will be evaluating the consultants’ recommendations. The recommendations are just one of many preliminary steps being taken as the city updates and improves its parking services.” In other words, none of this is set in stone and none of it will happen immediately. The city met with business owners after the report became public and made it clear that they would consider their study regarding any changes to be made, not the other survey. Also stated, according to those who attended that I’ve spoken to, was that any changes will not necessarily go before City Council and will not require public hearings.

So, are changes coming at some point? It is likely. Will all the recommendations suddenly be put in place? No. Exactly when and what changes will be made is less than clear.